In a criminal trial, jurors must remain impartial in deciding whether an accused individual, or defendant, is guilty or not guilty of any charged crimes. They must only take into account the evidence presented at trial. It's unfair to a defendant if jurors let biases affect their decision making.
In order to have a fair jury, the court and attorneys for both sides can request the dismissal of potentially biased jurors during the selection process. Questions will be asked the potential jurors as to how impartial they can be for the trial. If the court or an attorney believes an individual won't be impartial, a challenge may be used. A challenge is a request to disqualify an individual from the jury.
If a request to dismiss a potential juror is based on a specific and stated reason, the request is called a challenge for cause. There's no limit to the number of challenges for cause that may be used during the jury selection. Since there are multiple ways a potential juror may become biased, there are many different reasons why the court or an attorney may challenge for cause.
Negative Publicity Before the Trial
Defendants who are accused of crimes that receive a lot of publicity are in danger of not receiving a fair trial. Potential jurors will most likely watch and read news about the crime. If there's negative publicity, they may form biases about the defendant before the trial even starts.
Even though a potential juror may be exposed to negative news about the case, that doesn't automatically mean that he'll be unfair. As long as jurors will make a decision as to guilt based solely on the evidence presented at trial, the defendant won't be prejudiced by the negative publicity.
Connection to Law Enforcement
A potential juror who works, or has a relative who works, for a law enforcement agency may be partial to any law enforcement officer over the defendant. It would be unfair to the defendant if this juror gave greater credibility to the officer over the defendant solely based on his job. The court and the attorneys must determine whether the potential juror will be impartial despite his connection to law enforcement.
Past Contact with a Trial Participant
Biases may be formed by a potential juror if he has had contact with a trial participant in the past. This may be the defendant, the defense attorney, the prosecutor, a witness or the victim. The potential juror is presumed to not be biased if he can assure the court that the prior contact won't affect his ability to be fair and impartial.
Victim of a Similar Crime
A potential juror may be biased against the defendant if he was the victim of a crime that's similar to the one the defendant is accused of committing. The individual will be asked whether he can be impartial despite the past crime. He won't be automatically disqualified just because he was a victim of a similar crime.
Past Jury Service
Serving on a jury in the past will normally not support a challenge for cause. To support a challenge for cause, the past jury service would have had to cause the potential juror to have actual bias that would prevent him from being impartial. Without actual bias, a potential juror can serve on the jury even if the present trial involves the same witnesses as the previous trial.
Seeing the Defendant in Handcuffs or Waist Chains
The defendant is entitled to appear innocent in front of the jury so that they don't form unfair opinions by how he looks. If jurors accidently see the defendant in handcuffs or waist chains, they may form biases against the defendant. The court will normally give instructions to the jury to prevent any prejudice.
A potential juror may be dismissed for cause if his support or opposition to the death penalty will affect his ability to be impartial. Individuals that'll vote for the death penalty in every case without regard to mitigating circumstances may be dismissed for being unfair to the defendant. Individuals that'll never vote for the death penalty may be dismissed for being unfair to the prosecutor. However, a juror that'll consider the death penalty in appropriate circumstances, even though he has reservations against it, may not be excused for cause.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If I am chosen for jury duty, do I have to tell the court that I have met the defendant a few times? Will I automatically be excluded from the jury for knowing the defendant?
- If I accidently see the defendant in handcuffs, do I keep silent about it or should I inform the court?
- What happens if I accidently answer a question from the court wrong during jury selection? Should I inform the court?