Voir Dire: What It Is And How It Affects Jury Selection During Criminal Trials

Receiving a letter that summons you in for jury duty can be exciting to some people, but frightening to others. Serving as a juror is a responsibility you have as a citizen of the U.S., but there are a lot of unknowns for a first-time juror. If you are preparing for this duty for a criminal case, you may want to know how the jury selection process works, and one way to find this out is by learning what "voir dire" means and how it may affect you.

What is Voir Dire?

Voir dire is a French term that represents one of the first steps used with a jury. This step is used to help the attorneys select the right jurors for the case and there are several steps it involves.

Step One:

The first step you should be concerned about is how the criminal attorney will perceive you. From the moment the criminal lawyer walks into the courtroom, he or she will be watching you. The attorney will actually be taking mental notes on each of the jurors that are present. The attorney does this for several reasons, including:

  • It helps determine if there are friends on the panel – When jurors know each other, or when they are really friendly with each other, it could present risks to the defendant in the case. These friends could side with each other instead of keeping their opinions independent, and this could be harmful to the defendant's case.
  • The attorney is able to see certain personality traits of jurors – As the attorney watches the jurors, he or she may be looking for certain qualities in them. The attorney may be looking for people that are humorous, serious, compassionate, quiet, or dry. He or she may also look for traits relating to race, ethnicity, or gender.
  • To discover your interests – As jurors wait, they are often allowed to read books or magazines. As you do this, the lawyer might try to learn more about you by what you are occupying your time with. If you are reading a love story book, this might show that you have a soft, kind heart.

Watching and observing you is one of the steps the lawyer will complete before the jury selection process begins, but it is not the only one.

Step 2:

The second part of voir dire involves questions. Both attorneys will have the opportunity to ask questions to each of the jurors. This step helps the attorneys select the jurors they would like to keep on the panel, and it helps them learn which ones they would like to eliminate. One of the key elements involved with this step for a criminal attorney is ruling out anyone that has specific biases or preconceived thoughts about a particular thing.

For example, if the defendant is black, his or her criminal attorney may want to make sure at least half of the jurors are black. The attorney may also ask questions to the jurors about prejudices they may have against black people.

During a murder trial, the criminal lawyer might ask each juror if they have ever had a murder in their family. If so, the lawyer might dismiss the jurors that have simply because they may have biases against anyone that is accused of murder.

Both attorneys have a say with the jurors that are selected, but a judge typically makes the final ruling on this. The ultimate goal is for a criminal attorney to place reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors, which is why juror selection is so important. According to the United States Courts, jurors are not legally allowed to vote "guilty" unless they know beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. If at least one of the 12 jurors votes "innocent" the charges will be dropped.

If you are required to show up for jury duty, you should be prepared for these steps. Learning about voir dire is also important for defendants in criminal cases too. If you are ever charged with a crime, you can be certain that your criminal lawyer will thoroughly perform these steps to find the best jurors for your case.