Perhaps the most critical phase of any trial is jury selection. To obtain a just verdict, we need unbiased, attentive jurors who care about the issues and care about justice. If a juror is over-worked and sleep-deprived, it will be all but impossible for that juror to stay alert and attentive through a one or two-week trial. Some jurors don’t particularly care about the issues, because their life experience is such that the jurors can’t relate to the issues in the case. Those jurors will have trouble paying attention, digesting information, and processing it carefully to arrive at a just verdict. But of course, a juror who is too invested in a particular point of view may not be able to fairly consider both sides’ evidence and argument.
On a 12-member jury, even one juror who does not meet these criteria can send the train off the rails. So jury selection is critical.
Incidentally, we don’t mean to be simple-minded about what counts as a just verdict. While we represent injury victims, we do not pretend that true justice always means a verdict in favor of the injury victim. We go to great lengths to screen out cases that are not truly just, under the law and the facts. Before we file a case, we will have obtained the medical records, scrutinized the case carefully on our own, and hired independent medical experts to review the case in detail. Only if a case survives this stringent review will we take the case and file it. We think it is unfair not only to the parties but also to the court system and to jurors, to file a case that is not truly just. So Bell Law Firm files far fewer cases than many law firms.
But back to jury selection.
One important part of jury selection is to identify people who, because of past experience, can relate to the issues in the trial — but without being overly invested in a particular point of view. For example, a case may involve an on-call doctor who did not come to a patient’s bedside promptly when called. With an issue like that, we might ask questions like the following of our potential jury:
- How many of you have seen a doctor in the past year?
- How many of you think that the level of care you receive from doctors today has gotten better than the care you received from doctors 20 years ago?
- How many of you think the care has gotten worse?
- How many of you think care has stayed the same?
In follow-up discussion, the attorneys for both sides can get a sense of which jurors are in the comfort zone — close enough to the issues to care about them, but not so committed that they cannot fairly consider both sides in this case.
A second important aspect of jury selection is to identify people who simply don’t agree with the aspects of the law that matter to this case. Those jurors will not be inclined to enforce the law through a verdict. To the contrary, they will be motivated either to simply refuse to apply the law or (more likely) to make up excuses for the defendant – to twist the facts to rationalize a verdict that does not apply the law. For example, in a car-crash case, some people just don’t believe a driver should be held responsible for hurting someone else, if all the driver did was look away for a split second. That attitude may be perfectly fine, but it’s not the law. The law does hold the driver responsible. A juror who rejects that aspect of the law cannot be relied on to enforce it when deliberating to decide the case behind closed doors.
So in planning for jury selection, we try to identify the key aspects of the law that come into play in this case, and we simply ask potential jurors how they feel about those principles. Where the case involves a defendant who lied to cover up wrongdoing, we might ask folks how they feel about someone who, when they’ve been accused of doing something wrong, shade the truth a little. “It’s so natural. Does anyone feel like it’s not fair to hold people fully responsible for a little bit of understandable dishonesty when they’ve been accused?”
Jury service is one of the great honors and responsibilities of being an American citizen. But none of us are well suited to serve in every possible case. We all have our biases and leanings born from various experiences and value systems developed over our lifetime. A former crime victim might be more biased in favor of the prosecution and against a defendant in a criminal case before the first piece of evidence is presented. A juror who has a daughter serving in the military might place undue weight on the credibility of witnesses with prior service experience than otherwise warranted. It’s enormously important to select a jury of people who are suited for this case, with these issues. With a careful, skilled jury selection, we lay the foundation for a fair trial and a just outcome.