The Voir Dire – Part 1

Greatly abbreviated versions of this post and the eight that follow it were used in Aggravated. These posts made up the initial Voir Dire chapter in the book before it was trimmed down to its essential bits. I’ve posted them here in case anyone wanted to see the same material with a great deal more detail. As always, the names here are pseudonyms. Some of these posts are extremely long. I recommend you view them on a computer monitor or a tablet instead of on your phone.

Reminders to be Truthful

Voir Dire is French for “to speak the truth,” something all potential jurors are sworn to do. Unfortunately, some of them lie in order to get on a jury (and others lie to avoid being on one). Voir dire is pronounced several different ways in the United States, largely depending on where you are. The French pronunciation is something close to vwa deer, but in Texas and much of the Deep South, you’re more likely to hear vor dīre (like four tire with soft consonants). This is a process through which attorneys question potential jurors (also called venirepersons) in order to make their best choices for the jury. When a voir dire is well-conducted, with a cooperative group of venirepersons, the attorneys can gain some sense of who might be favorable to or opposed to their side. The prosecution will attempt to eliminate individuals who have backgrounds or experiences which might be sympathetic to the defendant, and the defense will try to remove those who might favor the victim. They do this by striking (excusing from duty) those they don’t want on the jury. The end result should be a jury which is neutral because the extreme outliers will have been eliminated, supposedly resulting in jurors who make their decisions based on evidence, not on any personal biases. Unfortunately, venirepersons sometimes have agendas that they either hide to get on a jury or expose openly to be excused from serving. Let’s find out why one specific person might have wanted to be on this jury.

On August 14, 2006, before the attorneys were able to question the venirepersons, Judge Hawes, after some introductory remarks, swore all the venirepersons in, and explained that the oath they had taken meant “…that you are promising to answer truthfully the questions that I ask concerning your qualifications or any of the questions asked later by the attorneys during the process of jury selection and that those answers will be truthful.” Hawes went on to clarify and expand his statement. He told them, for example, that not giving a complete answer “could result in a juror being seated that was not qualified to be there,” which could cause a mistrial and waste everyone’s time. “So,” he said, “it’s very important that you are truthful in your responses, and I’m sure you will be.”

He used a variant of the word “truthful” three times in the space of a few minutes. Was everyone truthful in their responses? No, they weren’t. One person in particular held back information which, if revealed, would have guaranteed that she would not have been picked for this jury. If a venireperson did lie and ended up on the jury, then Steve’s second trial—like the first one— should also have been a mistrial, and the prosecution would then have needed to conduct a third trial at great expense or give up. The second one wasn’t a mistrial, though. This person intentionally flew under the radar and ended up on the jury. She was likely a contributing factor in Steve’s conviction. Why would someone want to be on a specific jury? What influence could one person have in affecting the decisions of eleven other people? A lot. In the next posts we’ll look at the voir dire process, how it applied to just that one venireperson, and see why it’s clear she was trying to get on this jury.

Michael Sirois

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