Jury Summons

Jury Summons

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Hiccups in the Process: Jurors' Silence Leads to Delay, Questions on Effectiveness of Voir Dire

Judges, attorneys, and defendants alike rely on the jury selection system to help achieve a jury that is fair and impartial, asking each potential juror to reveal the truth about any biases they may harbor and any beliefs that may interfere with their ability to be a fair and impartial juror. However, before the attorneys' final decisions are made about who should be disqualified or stricken from the venire, the attorneys and the judge ask the venire if there is any reason that they may not be able to serve as a juror, particularly when the trial is expected to last several days or, perhaps, as the jury is expected to be sequestered for the duration of a highly publicized murder trial. Such circumstances are known prior to the jury selection and certainly are revealed to the venire during voir dire. However, even when the venire members are told that all the court asks is that they give open and honest answers to all questions, and to speak up if they feel there is a potential problem that would make it impossible to serve on the jury, there are still those that remain silent and cause problems for the court system.

In Memphis, Tennessee this week, there was such an incident of venire members not being open and honest about potential conflicts they had with being able to be jurors on a highly publicized murder trial. Two women, who were told during voir dire that the jury would have to be sequestered for the remainder of the trial, failed to tell the court that they had conflicts that would make it impossible for them to serve until they had already been chosen as alternates for the jury. One woman had failed to tell the court that she was a nursing mother and that she could not be expected to be away from her 3-month old child for several days. The woman, in tears, claimed to have been intimidated by the judge's admonition of another venire member for his "disgust of the process" and was afraid the court would not excuse her from service. 

Another woman came in front of the judge armed with her husband and an attorney claiming that she could not be on a sequestered jury panel because her Muslim faith does not allow women to sleep outside their house without their husbands, and even had her husband testify under oath to this fact. While attorneys from both sides agreed to dismiss the woman from jury service, the judge remained skeptical that the woman was being totally honest about why she wished to be excused from service, noting that the same woman had asked to be excused the day before saying that she had only paid for a babysitter for the morning and had previously remained silent when asked to state whether or not she had any issues with serving. The judge further noted that he did not believe she would have been a good jury member.

These women's silence caused a month-long delay for the start of the murder trial, no doubt upsetting the court and the victim's family. Yet while their silence will eventually be remedied, one can only wonder at how many venire members remain silent on issues that could affect the outcome of a trial. One can only speculate as to whether simply trusting a venire member to speak up when the general panel is asked an open question is enough to root out bias and conflict in the final jury panel.

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