Jurors in a criminal trial have a great responsibility. They must decide whether an accused individual, or defendant, is guilty or not guilty of any charged crimes. While they examine all the evidence at trial and decide the defendant's fate, the jurors must remain impartial and free of bias.
Since having an impartial jury is crucial to having a fair trial, a defendant has the right to have a jury pool that's composed of a fair cross-section of the community. A jury pool, or venire, is a collection of potential jurors assembled together for jury duty.
A jury for a criminal trial is chosen from the jury pool. The court and the attorneys can question the potential jurors and can challenge anyone that seems to have possible or actual bias. A challenge is a request to disqualify an individual from the jury. The ultimate goal is to end up with a jury pool that's representative of the community, and a jury that's fair and impartial.
Assembling or Choosing a Jury Pool
A jury pool must be selected randomly from all potential jurors. It can't be based on race, sex or religion. The primary sources of potential jurors are voter registration lists. However, these lists may not result in a fair cross-section of the community. Racial minorities and people with lower incomes are less likely to register to vote.
Voter registration lists may be supplemented by other sources of potential jurors. Some examples of supplemental sources include:
- Licensed-driver lists
- Phone books
- Tax rolls
- City directories
The lists of potential jurors are compiled together into a source called the master jury wheel. Potential jurors are chosen from this source and mailed a juror qualification form. The individuals who return the form and qualify for jury service are placed on a qualified jury wheel. Potential jurors are then randomly chosen from this source to be part of a jury pool.
Excusals, Exemptions and Disqualifications
Some individuals mailed a juror qualification form may be excused from jury duty because of undue hardships or extreme inconvenience. However, they may be summoned again for service at the conclusion of their hardship or inconvenience. Some examples include:
- People over 70 years of age
- People that are necessary for the health or safety of a child under 10 years of age
- Actively practicing attorneys, doctors and nurses
Certain people may be exempt from jury duty. Some examples include:
- Active members of the US armed forces
- Active members of a fire or police department
- Active public officers in the government
Some individuals may be disqualified from jury duty. Some examples include:
- People who aren't citizens of the US
- People who can't speak English
- People who're incapable of jury service because of a mental or physical problem
- People who've been convicted of a crime and their civil rights haven't been restored
Representative of the Community
A jury pool doesn't have to exactly match the makeup of a community. It just has to be representative of the community and not intentionally exclude certain distinct groups. Courts can't intentionally exclude or substantially underrepresent a distinct community group based on race or ethnicity. Examples of distinct community groups include:
- Native Americans
Not every community group is considered a distinct group for jury pool purposes. Examples of these groups include:
- Groups based on age
- Convicted felons
- College students
Jury Pools that Don't Represent the Community
A defendant may complain that a jury pool isn't fair and reasonable in relation to the community. The court will usually require statistical evidence to show that the percentage of a distinct group in the jury pool is substantially underrepresented compared to the percentage of the group in the community. Mere guesswork by the defendant isn't enough to prove underrepresentation.
Even if the defendant can prove the jury pool doesn't represent the community, he still must show the court that it's the result of systematic exclusion. This means that the procedures for assembling a jury pool are biased towards a distinct community group and exclude them from jury duty. If the procedures are random and unbiased, there isn't a violation of the defendant's right to a jury pool composed of a fair cross-section of the community.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If I receive a juror qualification form in the mail, can I just ignore it if I have a physical problem that prevents me from jury service? Should I write about my physical problem on the form and return it?
- If half the community is made up of African-Americans, am I entitled to a jury pool that's half African-American? Does it matter if I am African-American or not?
- If I believe certain distinct community groups are substantially underrepresented, where do I find statistical evidence to prove to the court that the jury pool doesn't represent the community? How do I prove that it's the result of systematic exclusion?