You’re sorting through your mail and you see the dreaded letter from the Clerk of Court of Maricopa County: You’ve been summoned for jury duty. In some cases, you won’t need to actually go to the courthouse if you follow certain pre-screening rules. But just your luck, they need you to come in bright and early on the specified date to be screened by the judge and attorneys.
More often than not, these jury summons end up not going far, but what if you are one of the ones who ends up serving on the jury of a high profile case? How are they picked? What qualifications and descriptions must one fit?
For attorneys, the process of jury selection is almost like being a candidate for admission to a university—many details and qualities of each person are assessed in order to find the “perfect juror.” Luckily for attorneys and the courts, Maricopa County usually produces a broad and diverse pool of potential jurors, collectively called a jury panel. Selecting from among the members of a panel is anything but a perfunctory process – a panel may include individuals of dramatically different backgrounds who live as close to the Superior Court as Downtown Phoenix or further away, such as Scottsdale, Surprise, or Mesa. This diversity is important to a fair trial, but is only the first step along the road to selecting a fair jury.
The jury selection process begins with initial screening questions. These screenings can cover typical subjects, such as ethical conflicts with relations between the juror and the parties/witnesses involved in the case, and even go as far as screening for prejudicial biases like race, gender, age, or sexual orientation. One’s experiences can also play a role in whether they are selected; If the juror has had a negative experience involving police, or believes that police officers are more likely to tell the truth than civilians, those biases are taken into account. If the case is a rape or sexual assault case and the potential juror has recently been a victim of similar crime, they would likely not be selected to serve. Formal legal training can also be a turnoff to attorneys and may be viewed as troublesome because it could lead other jurors to follow along without thinking critically.
For high-profile cases, or for any case that has received even de minimis public exposure, it is important to the attorneys and the tribunal that the potential jurors have little to no personal knowledge about the case and have not been exposed to media coverage about the investigation. Similar to other biases, media exposure is a serious dilemma in jury selection for all parties involved because opinions formed outside the courtroom undermine constitutional due process.
Lastly, even for jurors who do not present with substantial biases and are not already aware of the case, the prosecution and defense attorneys are permitted a limited number of peremptory strikes to remove potential jurors from the panel. Attorneys consider jurors’ professions, backgrounds, and any other details revealed during the screening process to decide whether they believe each person in the panel will be able to consider the case fairly.
In cases like the death of Mike Brown and Daniel Holtzclaw and even the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, a portion of the public attention was about the jurors and the identities of the chosen few. In the Trayvon Martin case in which George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering a 17-year-old unarmed teenager, a couple of jurors came forward and sat down with the press to describe their experiences. One juror in particular, formerly known as B29, told the Huffington Post that she originally wanted to convict Zimmerman of second-degree murder, but after deliberation and how the law was read to her, she avoided being the juror whose disagreement with the majority would result in a mistrial.
After the trial, juror B29 went into detail about how she felt after the verdict. A lot of her personal biases, such as the fact that she was a mother and a child of someone, played a role in why she held on to her belief that Zimmerman was guilty of second degree murder from the beginning. Juror B29 said that, after the verdict, she felt a lot of sympathy towards the family of Trayvon Martin and reportedly felt like “she owes Martin’s parents an apology.”
As you can see by juror B29’s comments, being on a jury in a trial like Zimmerman’s goes to show not only how hard the process of being a juror for these high profile cases can be, but also how selective and attentive attorneys must be.
B29 disagreed with the jury’s majority opinion, but nonetheless agreed to acquit Zimmerman because she was not independent enough to stand her ground in the now-infamous ‘stand your ground’ defense case. For the defense, she could have been a valuable juror, but she needed the support of a like-minded colleague (but none was selected).
Like searching for the top candidate for college admission, judges and attorneys must take this “admissions process” seriously in order to have a fair and speedy trial. The process can be time-consuming and a little boring for potential jurors, but jury selection is one of the core functions of our judicial system and a live example of your constitutional rights at work.