When you have a trial by jury, you face a jury of your peers. This selected group of individuals will sit, listen to the story, the facts, and the evidence presented, and will finally render their decision. And the decision they make as a group will dictate the future course of your life. This means that your life, in no uncertain terms, depends on the decision that jury makes.
As a fifth-generation Mississippi lawyer with decades of experience protecting the legal rights of individuals who have been unfairly injured or charged with a crime, I know how important it is to have a jury that is fair and impartial. It is the obligation of your legal advocate to find a jury comprised of individual who can and are willing to understand your story to the best of their ability. Every person brings their own life experiences when they step into a jury box, and you never know what those life experiences may be. Just like you, I have had a multitude of experiences both good and bad in my life. And I know that a person’s disposition, beliefs, inclinations, family, community, work, and countless other factors affect the way they think about things, whether they know it or not. If I represent you, it is my job as your personal injury or criminal defense lawyer to find the best people to sit on your jury to render the decision that we believe to be favorable.
When I take part in jury selections on behalf of my clients, I am tuned in to every detail, attentive to everything potential jurors are doing. An attorney with experience knows how to read people. Facial expressions, where a person’s eyes go, responses to questions, body language, and attitude can all be telling indicators of where a person’s biases and loyalties lie. You have the legal right to a fair trial with a jury of your peers, and you need a criminal defense attorney or personal injury lawyer who will make sure your rights are never taken from you at any point of the legal proceedings.
Let’s walk through the jury selection process and discuss some of the characteristics that lawyers need to consider when questioning potential jurors.
Who Qualifies to Serve as a Juror?
Before jury selection even begins, the first stage is summoning a pool of potential jurors from a list of citizens eligible to serve on a jury. States and districts have different ways of gathering these names. Citizens selected at random will be asked to complete questionnaires determining their eligibility, and those who are qualified can then be arbitrarily summoned for jury duty. This goal is to ensure that jurors represent diversity in factors such as gender, age, race, ethnicity, political affiliation, and economic background.
To serve as a juror in the United Stated federal court system, you must be:
- A United States citizen
- At least 18 years of age
- Proficient in English
- Without any physical or mental impairment which could prevent you from fulfilling your duty
- Never convicted of a felony (unless civil rights have been legally restored)
- Not currently facing felony charges punishable by imprisonment for more than one year
The following groups of people are additionally ineligible to serve on federal court juries:
- Members of the armed forces on active duty
- Members of fire and police departments
- Public officers of federal, state, or local governments who are actively engaged in the performance of public duties
The state of Mississippi has its own set of rules for who can serve on a jury in a state court. To be eligible to serve on a jury in a Mississippi state court, individuals must meet certain criteria, including being over the age of 21 and a resident of the county in which they were summoned.
How Jurors Are Selected
Once prospective jurors have moved past the large jury pool and on to the next stage, they are assigned to smaller groups usually referred to as panels. When a person becomes part of a jury panel, they are then eligible to be examined by the lawyers of both sides of a legal case. This questioning process is called “voir dire,” a Latin phrase meaning “to speak the truth.” These potential jurors will be briefed on the nature of the case and taken through a series of questions involving the lawyers of both parties. This is important to ensure that maximum impartiality is achieved. At this stage of the selection process, it becomes particularly evident whether or not you have a skilled lawyer. If your attorney isn’t as competent as the opposing sides’, you may end up with a jury that is inherently prejudiced and predisposed to make decisions against your favor.
Qualities to Look for in a Juror
Choosing the right jury can be the difference between success and failure in a legal case. The aim is to identify people who are generally as unbiased as possible and open to hearing and weighing the evidence presented to them. Attorneys involved in voir dire must ask the right questions, listen carefully to answers, and read bodily and verbal clues to get a feel for how potential jurors will think and behave when encountering the facts of the case.
As lawyers of both sides ask questions and consider replies, they will be able to identify those people who would not make good jurors. A procedure called “challenge for cause” allows lawyers to dismiss prospective jurors for a certain reason, usually because they believe that person harbors a particular bias which makes them unable to consider the facts in an unprejudiced manner. Identifying bias in potential jurors is very specific to each unique case, and attorneys should know to phrase and pose questions which can draw out prejudices without specifically asking about them.
The following are only some of the factors your attorney will look for and evaluate during voir dire:
- Biases. The goal in jury selection is to get fair, unbiased jurors rather than ones with strong, solidified biases making them prone to impartial decision-making. Therefore, anything that indicates a strong prejudice on an issue related to the case is reason to dismiss a prospective juror.
- Experience with Legal Issues. A person’s history with legal matters has a strong effect on their attitudes. For example, lawyers need to know things like whether a potential juror has hired a lawyer in the past, what their experience was like, if they were ever the victim of or witness to a crime, and if they have served on a jury before.
- Relationships. Attorneys may ask questions to find out if a potential juror has any lawyers or politicians in their immediate family or social group, if a spouse or close relative has a job or other position related to the case, or if someone close to them has been involved in a legal matter or specific type of legal case in the past.
- Employment History. If a person’s employment is in any way relevant to the issues in the case, they will likely be dismissed. Other factors to consider may include whether they are a union employee, if their career involves fighting injustice, if they are an entrepreneur, or whether they work for a small, family-owned business or a large corporation.
- Religion. In some situations, an attorney may use a potential juror’s religious affiliations to dismiss them, especially if the person holds a leadership position or are otherwise highly involved in their religious community. This may be an indication that they hold beliefs which could prevent them from being able to considering both sides of a certain matter.
- Demeanor and Body Language. Non-verbal signals, especially those in response to topics that are raised during questioning, can powerfully point out a person’s predispositions. Lawyers carefully look for facial expressions, movements, use of space, habits, posture, and manner of dress and grooming.
- Truthfulness. Well-worded questions help lawyers find out up front how honest the potential jurors actually are. Someone caught in a lie during the jury selection process is probably not the best candidate for a good juror.
- Bias Evident Online. Some things that may not come out during voir dire may be evident in the potential juror’s online presence. What a person writes, tags, likes, posts, or comments on in their social media life can be used by lawyers to ascertain their merit as a juror in a specific case.
A good attorney knows how to read people and ask the right questions. As we’ve discussed, those questions may look very different depending on the nature of the case. Some of the questions that may be used during the voir dire process include something like the following:
- Have you been a witness to a crime?
- Have you ever given money to a person experiencing homelessness?
- Do you give honest answers on polls and surveys?
- Have you ever filed a lawsuit against someone?
- Where do you get your news?
- Would you ever run for a local government office?
Hire a Lawyer with Experience
Some people think my job is all about memorizing obscure laws and arguing in front of a courtroom. It’s true that being a lawyer demands competency in those areas, but any good attorney also knows they must possess knowledge gained from experience in order to be successful in practicing law.
When you are in a grim legal situation, you need to know that your lawyer has experience in the courtroom, but also experience in life. Contact my office today to schedule a no-obligation conversation about your case.