Who’s to say whether a juror has bias? (Part 1)

The voir dire process that juries go through in the U.S. helps attorneys detect juror bias against their case. Attorneys often use “peremptory strikes” to remove jurors without having to state a reason (or “cause”), but sometimes the jurors don’t provide the information the attorneys needed to make that choice.

A recent federal trial in Massachusetts presents the situation in which jurors failed to disclose information on a questionnaire that attorneys would have wanted to know. The Boston Herald provided the details:

One woman acknowledged that she did not reveal that her daughter once worked for the Sanibel, Fla., police department and that her daughter went to prison on a drug charge in 1998.

Another juror failed to disclose that her boyfriend was once a university police officer and a third juror did not reveal that he had been prosecuted for driving to endanger and driving without a license, according to transcripts of the interviews with the judge.

The defendant in the case has already pleaded guilty to murder, and the judge hasn’t ruled yet on whether the information makes the jurors biased.

From the standpoint of the Jury & Democracy project, it’s simply interesting to notice that the system has two distinct approaches to bias: direct questions about bias and circumstantial evidence of bias. In this case, as in all others, the jurors are sworn to fair judgment, and they have often directly stated they are free of bias, such as when attorneys ask them that question. But a third party can decide, in circumstances such as these, whether those affirmations of neutrality count. More routinely, attorneys regularly dismiss jurors through their aforementioned peremptory strikes on that same judgment.

By comparison, judges themselves only come in for such questioning when there’s a stark apparent conflict of interest. They’ll occasionally recuse themselves, as Elena Kagan did for early cases in her Supreme Court tenure, but again, the burden of proof is on those who would doubt the judge’s neutrality.

Not so with jurors. Just an observation.

About jgastil

John Gastil is Head and Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, where he specializes in political deliberation and group decision making.
This entry was posted in Jury structure and reform, Public/media views of juries, Voir dire and jury selection. Bookmark the permalink.

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