The Voir Dire – Part 4

Questions From the Prosecution

Hawes turned the proceedings over to the prosecutor, Elmer Ross, who said, “This is the point in the process where we will be talking to you a little bit about your background and about your life experiences to determine whether or not you would be an effective and impartial juror on this kind of case. And I want to begin this process by just letting you know from the beginning that there are no wrong answers, except for the answer that you don’t give us because you’re too shy to speak up. Okay? What we’re trying to do here is to find out a little bit about you and your background so we can make a decision as to whether we feel you would be able to be a fair and impartial juror on this case.” In effect, he was putting them on notice, even though they had already been told by Judge Hawes that he expected them to be completely truthful, that they would definitely be expected to tell the truth during the voir dire proceedings.

He started by giving the venirepersons some biographical information about himself, but then started asking them questions related to the trial process. When he asked which of them would feel uncomfortable deciding whether or not someone had committed a criminal offense, several of them spoke up. They came up to the judge’s bench and spoke to Hawes and the attorneys there so they could speak privately.

Juror #3 said that a sexual assault had been committed against him, and that his family had a foster child who was “going through sexual assault.” Juror #7 said her niece “went through something like this. I have him guilty till he is proven innocent. I’m backwards.” Juror #18 said he had worked in schools for twenty years, and added, “I still have one in school, and I would have a hard time being impartial and fair.” Juror #19 gave a long and complicated answer that eventually boiled down to “the Defendant looks familiar to me for some reason. And I just wouldn’t feel comfortable sending somebody to prison.” They were all challenged for cause, and Hawes asked them to come back that afternoon for the civil panel. Notice that Juror #19 seemed to believe that Steve was going to be convicted no matter what.

Ross then described the charges against Steve, outlining each of the three counts individually. In brief, they were, roughly paraphrased: Count I – On or about September 1, 2001, in Ashwell County, penetration of the sexual organ of Hanna Penderfield by Steve with his tongue; when she was under fourteen and not married to him. / Count II – On or about February 14, 2004, in Ashwell County, penetration of the mouth of Hanna by Steve with his sexual organ; when she was under seventeen and not married to him. / Count III – On or about February 14, 2004, in Ashwell County, penetration of the sexual organ of Hanna by Steve with his finger; when she was under seventeen and not married to him.

Ross then asked them if there was anything about the allegations themselves, or something in their own backgrounds that would make them hesitant to say they could be fair and impartial to either side. All of the following venirepersons came up to the front and spoke to the judge and the attorneys out of hearing of the others on the jury panel.

Juror #25 said “I think I could serve and be fair and impartial, but I have a strong feeling about sexual assaults on little kids. I’m very against those kind of people, and I’m one for first impressions. This guy, to me, I get that impression. I just want you to know that.” Ross told him that “no one is going to say that they don’t have strong feelings about sexual assault. That’s the reason why this kind of thing is a crime. But having those feelings doesn’t disqualify you as a juror if you can tell us that you would listen to the evidence that would be presented in this case and make whatever decision you make based only on the evidence that you hear here and nothing else.” Juror #25 said, “I just wanted y’all to know I’m a first-impression person. And the impression I get is that this guy is — I don’t know, you know, but he just gives me that impression.” Cleveland Sanford stepped in to ask him if this “first impression” that he got was that Steve was guilty. Juror #25 said, “Well, yeah.” Sanford said, “What you’re telling me is that you — we wouldn’t be starting out with even footing?” Juror #25 answered, “You would have to convince me very strong that this guy was not guilty.” After Sanford and Judge Hawes both questioned him further, Sanford asked if he meant that he would be putting the defense in a position where they would have to prove to him that Steve wasn’t guilty (which, with the burden of proof resting with the prosecution, is the exact opposite of what the law requires). Juror #25 said “Yes.” Sanford challenged #25 for cause, saying that the juror had basically said he wouldn’t be able to follow the law. Ross disagreed, and argued that #25 had said “that he could be fair and impartial.” Judge Hawes sided with the defense and #25 was put on the civil panel.

After a few other questions, Ross asked Steve to stand up, and asked if anyone on the left side of the room recognized him. Juror #1, Andrea Brailford, raised her hand. She said, “I’m his sister-in-law.” Being related to Steve (and her daughter being married to Josh Chilmark, one of the witnesses in the case) was probably an automatic disqualifier, but Judge Hawes asked her anyway if she thought she could be fair and impartial in trying the case. She answered, “Probably not.” Hawes, of course, put her on the civil panel.

Juror #12, Stanley L. Sawyer, said “I don’t know if I recognize him or what. I read the article in the paper last week, or whenever it was. I may have gone to high school with him, but I don’t know how old he is. I knew some Sirois when I was in school, but I don’t know his age.” Ross explained that hearing or reading news about the trial was a topic he was going to explore in a minute, but he went ahead and asked him if he could base his decision strictly on the testimony in this trial and not on anything he might have heard or read before. Then Ross told him that Steve was in his mid-40’s, and asked him if that would put he and Steve in the same age range. Sawyer told him that he had graduated in 1967. [I graduated from Deep Springs High School in 1965, and my sister Jamie graduated in 1967. He was likely remembering one of us, but not Steve.] Sanford asked him whether his prior knowledge of the case would make him “lean one way or the other.” Sawyer said, “No.” They had him sit back down. He became one of the jurors.

As a good indication that the town is small, some of the other venirepersons said they lived near Steve, knew him from high school, met him when he worked for the city, met him at a presentation to Steve’s homeowner’s association, and one said that Marri and her daughter played together sometimes. All said they would have no problem being fair. None of them made it onto the jury.

Next, Ross asked a question about whether they had heard about the trial, and several responded. Most of them said they read about it in the newspaper. One read about it in the newspaper and talked about it to a friend who watched some of Steve’s first trial. None of them made it on the jury.

One person, Juror #41, Penny Jo Beck, didn’t read about it in the paper, but said her husband read parts of a newspaper article aloud to her, wondering if that was the trial she had been called to jury duty for. She said the only thing her husband told her was that it was going to be “a sexual case.” She said she could be fair and impartial to both sides. She became the alternate juror.

They took a lunch break at that point, and we’ll pause there too. The next post is the first of four about Ronelle Wilcox, our prospective errant juror.

Michael Sirois

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