A civic responsibility. Jurors play a critical role in our justice system

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Jurors play a critical role in our justice system

“I have explosive diarrhea.”

“I only recognize God’s laws.”

“All law enforcement is corrupt.”

“I am in favor of more capital punishment.”

These are real excuses used by North Idaho residents attempting to get out of jury duty.  While some explanations are more humorous than others, serving on a jury is no laughing matter.

“Jurors play an essential role in our judicial system,” said Michael Palmer, a partner with the firm of Palmer, George & Taylor. “Most people take their civic responsibility very seriously. A perfect juror is someone who is willing to keep an open mind and give both sides a fair hearing with no preconceived ideas about the case.”

There is a formal process in which jurors are picked to serve on criminal and civil trials. It’s a court proceeding called the voir dire. The French term means to say what is true. Voir dire is a vital stage of the jury trial process. It is the questioning of prospective jurors by a judge, the prosecutor, and defense counsel in court. During the questioning of potential jurors in the voir dire process, lawyers strive to achieve  three major goals: eliciting information from jurors, educating jurors on key concepts, and developing rapport with jurors.

Voir dire is also used to determine if any juror is biased and/or cannot deal with the issues as required by law. Voir dire is the only time the jurors can express their beliefs, personal experiences, and opinions to the attorneys and it is useful when they do so.  

“You should strive to be as honest and open as possible,” said Palmer. “The attorneys are not looking to judge any of your beliefs or experiences; they are simply looking for as fair a trial, from their perspective, as possible. I am more concerned about the jurors who stay silent. They have a responsibility to speak their minds and answer the questions truthfully.If they don’t communicate it is difficult to assess if they are an appropriate juror for the case.”

Usually there are 30 to 70 or more people in a jury pool, but only 12 people will ultimately serve as jurors (6 in misdemeanor cases). The judge can also seat alternate jurors if the case may take several days. Alternates are seated to replace jurors who may become unavailable to complete the case due to an emergency.

The voir dire can take several hours. While it can seem random as to why people are chosen, it’s not.

“Selecting a jury is more art than science,” said Palmer. “It’s about listening to what jurors say and, also, what they don’t say during voir dire.”

So why wasn’t a person selected?

It could be that the judge excused a person for cause based on a self-disclosure about their inability to follow the law, inability to be fair and impartial, or their inability to give full attention to the trial. The judge decides who gets excused from the jury “for cause.”  

Even if a person makes it all the way through to the end of voir dire without an excusal, the person still might not remain on the jury. Attorneys for both sides are allowed a limited number of peremptorychallenges. This means that attorneys on each side can, without giving any reason, ask that particular jurors be excused. This process is often done outside the presence of the potential jurors.

Each side is allowed to eliminate between 4 and sometimes up to 10 or more people from serving on the jury depending on the type of criminal case. For example, in a murder trial with the death penalty as a possible sentence, each side is allowed to challenge up to, at least, 10 individuals from serving. A misdemeanor trial allows between four and five challenges out of an average jury pool of approximately 30 people.

So what are attorneys looking for from people during voir dire?

Each trial presents a different set of juror experiences and opinions that the attorneys are evaluating. For example, in a DUI trial the attorneys may be interested to hear the jurors’ opinions on alcohol consumption and any experiences they may have personally had with someone who was driving impaired.

Also, the attorneys will be interested in a juror’s relationship to and experiences with law enforcement, of if they have any preconceived ideas or impressions about the defendant, and their willingness to listen to all the evidence before making any conclusions.

“Over 20 years ago, my brother’s car was broken into and his stereo and his music was stolen,” Palmer said. “I am still mad about that. I probably wouldn’t be a good juror for an auto burglary case.”

Once a jury is selected, the judge gives them specific instructions about behavior in and out of the courtroom. For example, a judge may instruct jurors to not discuss the case with anyone - including spouses - until the trial is completed. Jurors are also told never to conduct independent research, which makes technology and use of the internet a great temptation for jurors, said Palmer.

“Jurors shouldn’t look the defendant up and try to find out more information about them,” he said. “There have been pre-trial motions and argument, guided by rules of law, presented by both the state and the defendant to ensure that each side is given a fair trial. Looking up an old article in the newspaper is not helpful. For one, newspapers might not have all the facts, and two, it could create a situation where you’re judging the case on facts that were not presented in court.”

Once the case goes to the jury, jurors can discuss the case among themselves and weigh the importance of witness testimony and evidence presented at trial. The classic 1957 film “12 Angry Men” provides an excellent example of jury deliberations. In the film, Peter Fonda’s character, Juror 8, is the lone holdout in a murder case. He’s able to persuade the other 11 jurors to switch their verdicts through a logical examination of the evidence.

That can happen in the modern courtroom too, Palmer said.

“You want people to go back to the jury room and talk back and forth,” he said. “Each person has the right to have an independent opinion of the facts. Of course we want a verdict, but if the jury isn’t able to reach a consensus, that’s OK too. It’s how our system works.”



Staff Writer

Michael Palmer

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