Voir Dire in Georgia: The Most Important Stage of a Jury Trial

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There is no doubt that opening and closing arguments are important stages of a jury trial. But, it is the process of voir dire that gives an attorney the opportunity to pull the truth out about a juror’s beliefs and biases. In fact, the phrase “voir dire” derives from a Middle French oath meaning to “tell the truth” or “give a true verdict.” Because the ultimate goal during jury selection is to select a fair and unbiased jury comprised of people who will truly be impartial and leave their own personal feelings by the wayside. Unfortunately, not all attorneys are skillful at the process of voir dire, which is why it is important that a defendant and his or her family hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who approaches the jury selection process in a strategic manner.

I’ll share a story with you. Years ago, I sat in the gallery of a courtroom—appalled. I was observing the start of a criminal trial. The defendant was facing some significant prison time. The charges were serious and included sexual abuse allegations against a minor. Any charges involving any kind of abuse against a child always spark anger and outrage. Any good person would feel the need to protect children; however, that is not the task of the jury. Sometimes jurors, in sensitive cases marked with stigma, cannot be impartial. Some jurors express their inability to be fair and unbiased and others do not.

But, back to the story. The attorneys were in the middle of jury selection. I watched as the criminal defense lawyer in the case questioned juror after juror—asking little to no questions at all about each juror’s life experiences, background, beliefs, biases, opinions or thoughts. As, he has a right to do under the law. He was up and down in his seat at the defense table in a flash. I just couldn’t help but think that he was doing his client a huge disservice. He was failing at being his client’s advocate.

WHAT EXACTLY IS THE VOIR DIRE PROCESS IN A JURY TRIAL?

A jury trial begins with jury selection—the process by which the parties (the State in a criminal trial or Plaintiff in a civil trial and defense counsel) select a jury. Under O.C.G.A. 15-23-133, “in all criminal cases both the State and the defendant shall have the right to an individual examination of each juror from which the jury is to be selected prior to interposing a challenge. The examination shall be conducted after the administration of a preliminary oath to the panel or in criminal cases after the usual voir dire questions have been put by the court. In the examination, the counsel for either party shall have the right to inquire of the individual jurors examined touching any matter or thing which would illustrate any interest of the juror in the case, including any opinion as to which party ought to prevail, the relationship or acquaintance of the juror with the parties or counsel therefor, any fact or circumstance indicating any inclination, leaning, or bias which the juror might have respecting the subject matter of the action or the counsel or parties thereto, and the religious, social, and fraternal connections of the juror.”

Jurors just don’t shed their life experiences, beliefs, biases, thoughts and opinions when they show up for jury duty. Just as much as jury deliberation is a truth-finding process so is jury selection. The voir dire process allows the lawyers in a case to question potential jurors, deep diving into their lives for the purposes of revealing any buried biases. The truth can’t be revealed if your attorney doesn’t ask the right line of questions, which are usually crafted based on the facts and circumstances of the case.

For instance, in the criminal trial that I was observing, the charges involved sexual abuse allegations against a minor. In a case such as this, hard and sensitive questions must be asked. It would be important to know if any jurors had ever been sexually abused (which can be done outside of the juror panel). You would want to know if any jurors worked with children, such as social workers or teachers. You would want to know if the spouses, friends or family members of jurors worked with children. You would want to know what organizations any potential jurors belonged to or volunteered at such as the Boys and Girls Club. You would also want to know if any jurors know anyone in the District Attorney’s Office or any members of law enforcement that are may be involved in the case. Also, does any of the jurors have family members in law enforcement? I think you get the picture. An attorney has to ask the right questions to get to the truth. Essentially, the voir dire process is about screening and striking jurors for their revealed biases. An attorney can strike a juror by using peremptory challenges and challenges for cause.

Peremptory Challenge: A peremptory challenge allows a lawyer to strike/excuse a juror without stating a reason. The number of peremptory challenges your lawyer has is limited by the law. In felony cases in Georgia, every person accused of a felony may peremptorily challenge nine of the jurors impaneled to try him or her. The State shall be allowed the same number of peremptory challenges allowed to the accused; provided, however, that in any case in which the State announces its intention to seek the death penalty, the accused may peremptorily challenge 15 jurors and the State shall be allowed the same number of peremptory challenges. O.C.G.A.  15-12-165.

Challenge for Cause: A challenge for cause requires that a lawyer state a specific reason for requesting to strike a potential juror as to why the juror cannot be fair and unbiased if he or she served on the jury. Usually, such causes are because a juror expressed the inability to be fair or unbiased due to their own personal experiences, acquaintanceships with people involved in the trial or any obvious prejudices. The attorney can make the request; however, it is the judge who determines if the person will be dismissed or not.

CONTACT BIXON LAW TODAY

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime, call Bixon Law today. You need an experienced Georgia criminal defense lawyer who will defend your legal rights and vigorously advocate on your behalf to have your case dismissed or the charges against you reduced. As experience trial attorneys, we’re also not afraid to take your case to trial if necessary. We represent clients in Atlanta and throughout the state of Georgia. We are lawyers who are committed to helping people in difficult situations and we invite you to call us at 404-551-5684 for a free consultation today.


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