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In a criminal trial, the accused individual, or defendant, is entitled to an impartial jury. The jury determines whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of any charged crimes. Any prejudice or bias on the part of the jurors may lead to an unfair verdict against the defendant.
In order to create an impartial jury, potential jurors are asked a series of questions by the court and by the attorneys for both sides on a variety of issues. Using the jurors’ answers, the court and the attorneys gradually dismiss potentially biased jurors until a complete jury is created. This process is called voir dire.
Purpose of Questioning Potential Jurors
The main purpose of voir dire is to ensure the defendant’s constitutional right to an impartial jury. Potential jurors that can’t follow the court’s instructions or evaluate the defendant’s guilt based solely upon the evidence presented in court must be excused. The best way to determine whether potential jurors will be impartial is to have them answer multiple questions about their potential biases.
Finding Potential Jurors to Question
The court and the attorneys use a jury pool to find potential jurors to question for a trial. A jury pool, or venire, is a collection of potential jurors assembled together for jury duty. A jury pool must be selected randomly from all potential jurors in the community. It can’t be based on race, sex or religion.
The defendant has the right to have a jury pool that’s composed of a fair cross-section of the community. It doesn’t have to exactly match the makeup of the community. It just has to be representative of the community and not intentionally exclude distinct groups based on race or ethnicity.
Extent of Questioning Potential Jurors
The court has broad discretion in determining how best to question the potential jurors. This discretion includes the extent the attorneys can question them and the types of questions that can be asked. The court can decide to examine the potential jurors individually or as a group.
Some courts may allow the use of written questionnaires to obtain answers to questions. This allows potential jurors to give private information without being embarrassed in front of the entire group. Whatever method the court uses, it must remain fair to both sides in the trial.
Examples of Questions to Potential Jurors
There’s a wide variety of questions that may be asked the potential jurors. Many will be tailor-made for the particular issues in the trial. Some may be general in nature that are asked to everyone as a group, while others may be asked to each potential juror individually. Some examples of voir dire questions include:
- Do you know the defendant or the attorneys?
- How much have you read, seen or heard about the defendant?
- Do you think that if a person is accused of a crime, he’s probably guilty?
- Do you have any medical or physical problems that would impair your ability to judge the evidence?
- Do you believe that you can follow and apply the law to the facts of the case?
- Do you or have you ever worked for a law enforcement agency?
- Would you believe the testimony of a police officer based solely on his position as an officer?
- Have you served on a jury before?
- Are there any religious beliefs that prevent you from passing judgment on another person?
- Is there anything that would prevent you from being fair and impartial in the trial?
Dismissing Potential Jurors
As the potential jurors answer the questions, the court and the attorneys may want to dismiss certain individuals. If a request to dismiss a potential juror is based on a specific and stated reason, the request is called a challenge for cause. The reason usually revolves around the potential or actual bias of the individual. Most courts allow an unlimited number of challenges for cause.
A peremptory challenge is a request to dismiss a potential juror without stating any reason. This challenge allows an attorney to dismiss a potentially biased juror based on experience and gut feeling. Attorneys are normally limited in the number of peremptory challenges they can use in a criminal case.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If I am called to jury service, do I have a legal duty to appear before the court? What if I have a mental or physical disability that prevents me from serving on a jury?
- If I am called to jury service, do I have to answer all the questions asked of me or can I skip ones that embarrass me? Can I tell the court I don’t want to be on a jury?
- If I don’t like the facial expressions or body language of a particular juror, can I have him dismissed even though his answers didn’t indicate he has bias?