It is very likely in your adult life that you will be summoned for jury duty, but will you make it to the box? Jury selection is an intriguing process. Judges and lawyers must make seemingly cursory assessments of human nature and biases in order to construct an effective panel. This raises the questions: What makes a juror either ideal or problematic? How is a jury selected?
First, through a fairly random process, a group of potential jurors—the jury pool or venire—is summoned from a list of eligible prospects. From this pool, a 6-12 jurors must be selected depending on the type of case at trial.
In many jurisdictions, the selection process starts with a group of 12 potential jurors being called to the box. A judge will then briefly explain the case at hand. From there, the questioning process, also known as voire dire, begins. During this process the judge and the lawyers can ask the individuals about potential life experiences and perspectives that might lead to particular biases or unfair judgements in the case.
Each lawyer is afforded a certain number of peremptory challenges. These challenges allow the lawyer to excuse a potential juror without defending that choice. In addition, each lawyer may request the dismissal of an unlimited number of potential jurors for cause. He or she presents the cause to the judge. The judge will then consider and either allow or deny the request.
This jury selection process is really a de-selection process. Each lawyer is not searching for the perfect juror; rather they are eliminating those individuals who, for whatever reason, might be less receptive to their case. So what is a lawyer not looking for? What factors could determine bias in a potential juror?
- Physical Appearance: While these factors may not be enough cause to eliminate an individual on their own, lawyers will make surface-level judgements in the voire dire process. A person’s hair, dress and body language can all be read as potential indications of inclinations and character. In general, a person with a more conservative, but still relaxed style and with open and receptive body language will be more likely to make it on a jury.
- Relevant Life Experience: A person’s life experiences can manifest in a variety of subtle biases. Relationships and professions can be particularly relevant in certain cases. For example, in a medical malpractice case, the daughter of a surgeon may not be an ideal candidate.
- Previous Legal Experience: Individuals may have biased opinions concerning criminal behavior or law enforcement based on personal experiences. If a person was once the victim of racial profiling or the victim of a robbery, that incident will undoubtedly shape his or her perceptions as a juror in a relevant case.
- Internet Activity: Social media has transformed the jury selection process. A lawyer can often determine an individual’s political inclinations, worldview and personal biases based on his or her public activity on the Internet.
- Personal Beliefs: Deeply entrenched religious or political beliefs may impede jurors from viewing a case objectively.
- Personality: A lawyer must also determine how an individual will function in the group setting of a jury. Is this person a leader or a follower? Will this person stand their ground or conform? The prosecution wants to assemble a group that can come to agreement, whereas the defense might prefer a more divisive dynamic. In general, if a lawyer senses animosity from a potential juror, they will dismiss that person. If someone doesn’t like you, they are unlikely to agree with you.
Through this process of intense questioning and close observation, lawyers can try to build the best jury for their case. In addition, countless demographic studies and jury monitoring services are available to help legal professionals gain valuable data and context for this complex selection process. No one likes jury duty, but it helps if you know what to expect and how to navigate it.