Introduction to How Important is Voir Dire
You may have heard news reports or watched trials (real or fictitious) where the attorneys were able to select quickly a jury and begin trying the case in short order. You may be aware of other examples where jury selection (or “voir dire”) has taken days or even weeks. In truth, the amount of time it takes to select a jury to hear a criminal case can vary widely from one case to the next, depending on a variety of factors. Some defendants view the jury selection process as a formality – something they (or their attorneys) should get through as quickly as possible. Other defendants believe that jury selection is the key to a successful trial. The question becomes, “Who is right?”
Goals to Accomplish Through Voir Dire
The answer to the question is (like most legal questions): “It depends.” In cases where the evidence is clear, the crime that not sensational (i.e., is not a crime that typically generates a great deal of publicity or public outrage), and does not involve complicated or controversial points of law, voir dire may not need to take a long time. In other cases, a defendant may want to take several days to select the jury. Regardless of the length of time voir dire takes, a defendant is attempting to accomplish several goals whenever he or she participates in voir dire:
- First, the defendant will want to introduce the jury to the burden of proof and the presumption of innocence. These are important concepts in a criminal case: a jury is to presume that the
defendant is innocent of the crime with which he or she is charged unless the prosecution convinces the jury of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A juror who is uncomfortable with these concepts should not be selected to be on the jury that decides the defendant’s fate.
- Next, the defendant will want to begin introducing the jury to the defendant’s theory (or story) of the case through carefully-worded questions. The defendant should also pay attention to the feedback the jury panel members provide. For example, if the defendant is claiming that he or she was falsely identified as the perpetrator of the crime, the defendant may wish to ask the jury panel about times they have misidentified a person or remembered details incorrectly.
- The final goal of voir dire is to remove jury panel members who do not appear to be favorably disposed to the defendant’s case. This may be revealed through the answers the jury panel members give (“I think the defendant is guilty because he is charged with a crime, and police don’t charge someone unless there is evidence for it”) or through nonverbal cues (such as a scowl or frown as the defendant is speaking to the jury). For more information on the voir dire process see the page from the American Bar Association.
The ultimate goal of voir dire is to impanel a jury that is composed of twelve individuals who are naturally skeptical of the prosecution and law enforcement officers and who will not hesitate to return a verdict of “not guilty” if the prosecution fails to prove each and every element of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.
While voir dire (or jury selection) does not always need to be a multi-day process, defendants should take the process seriously. Questions should be posed to the potential jurors that would reveal their biases as well as their feelings and attitudes toward the defendant’s theory of the case. While any jury is capable of convicting the defendant in any given case, taking the time to select individuals who are favorable to the defendant’s position will only increase the likelihood of an acquittal. Selecting the right jury is essential to your case. Contact an experienced criminal attorney at Ariano & Associates for additional information.