The Voir Dire – Part 2

Initial Excuses

Judge Hawes’ first action was to examine the venirepersons for qualifications and excuses. After swearing everyone in, he allowed anyone who felt they shouldn’t be there, or needed to be excused, to come up and talk to him about it. The room was packed with ninety-five venirepersons. It was so full, Doug Sanford told me, that he thought they might even have had some of them sitting in the jury box during the voir dire.

Earlier I listed some of the prejudices against Steve that existed before this trial, as well as a general bias against sex offenders, especially those that prey on children. Some of that bias exhibited itself during the voir dire.

One venireperson, Elias Levy, said, “I read in the newspaper that there would be a child molester trial, and I don’t feel that I would be adequate to judge upon a person, a child molester.” Hawes explained to him that even though someone has been accused, “it doesn’t mean they are guilty of anything.” Levy said he understood, but said “it just sickens me for — even the allegation that someone would touch a child.” Hawes asked Mr. Levy if he could set that thought aside and base his verdict on the evidence alone. Levy insisted, “To me, if they have been accused of it, they’ve done it.” Hawes put him on a civil jury panel that would be voir dired that afternoon, eliminating someone from the possibility of adversely affecting the jury. If this man had kept his mouth shut, and not expressed those opinions, but calmly sat in the jury pool and made benign, neutral comments when he was spoken to, what might have happened? Could he have ended up on the jury? Of course he could.

Another man, Garth Jackson, said, “I understood one of these cases is the Sirois case. The little girl’s mother worked for me several months last year.” Hawes asked him if he thought he could be fair and impartial despite a connection to one of the witnesses. Jackson said, “Well, I probably could, but we’ve pretty much tried the case in our office. You know, I think — I think I would be biased.” Hawes put him on the civil jury panel. If Mr. Jackson had mentioned that Darla Belisle had worked for him, but had also said that he could be fair and impartial to both sides, could he have ended up on the jury? Not as likely as Mr. Levy because of the connection to Hanna’s family, but still possible.

Eleanor Chisholm, said, “I think he is guilty, so I would be whatever you call it. [Prejudiced?] Hawes said, “You’ve not heard any evidence, but just merely because he is accused of it, you don’t think you could be fair and impartial, you’ve already made a judgment?” Ms. Chisholm said, “I don’t think I could at all.” Hawes asked her if she would have the same attitude about other types of cases or just this one. She said, “Just this one.” Hawes put her on the civil jury panel. If Ms. Chisholm hadn’t expressed her clear bias, and hadn’t said that she had already made up her mind about Steve’s guilt, could she have ended up on the jury? Again, yes, possibly.

A few others said they knew Steve, lived near him or knew his kids from school, excuses like that. Hawes put all of them on the civil jury panel. After questioning the 37 excuse-requestors that came forward, Hawes excused 23 of them from jury duty altogether for various reasons, switched eight people to the civil jury panel, but kept the other six on Steve’s panel. Two of the 37 excuse-makers still ended up on Steve’s jury (after the next part of the voir dire was finished). One said he was short-handed at work and the other one said she was moving two weeks from then and wanted extra time to pack. Those excuses obviously weren’t good enough to get them out of jury duty. Hawes then gave everyone a half-hour break so the court clerks could shuffle the juror information cards and assign numbers to the remaining sixty-four venirepersons.

In the next post we’ll look at how the seating of the potential jurors may have affected who ended up being selected for the jury.

Michael Sirois

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