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Picking a jury: an inexact science

No doubt, anyone who has ever been called to serve on a jury has found the selection process fascinating and, to say the least, a bit intimidating.
As a journalist who frequently pores over police reports, sworn statements and other court documents, I have never been selected to serve, although I have been summoned to court as a prospective juror. I was reminded of this again last week, when for more times than I care to think would be necessary in this rural, seemingly bucolic community, I sat in the courtroom listening to one prospective juror after another undergo the grilling process. This time, for a murder trial.
In a criminal case such as this, the defense attorney is often a public defender, i.e., an attorney who is paid by the public. The expense is necessary to ensure that no one’s freedoms are taken away because they cannot afford to pay a lawyer. Unfair burden on the taxpayer, you say? Maybe. Until you fall on hard times … anyway, that’s another issue.
In questioning potential jurors, the defense attorney must seek answers that will show whether a person might be biased against the accused or for any other reason might not be able to render a verdict based solely on the evidence presented at trial.
The prosecutor’s role in any criminal trial is simply that: to prosecute. To get a conviction, a guilty verdict. All, of course, in the name of justice. So if along the way the prosecutor finds cause to believe a defendant is not guilty, either before or during the trial, his or her job is to inform the court and seek a dismissal of the case. With apologies, of course. But if the prosecutor thinks the odds weigh in on the side of guilt, then it’s full speed ahead.
From the prosecution’s perspective, selecting a juror means much the same as for the defense, but from an opposite point of view.
More to the point, that reminds me of a story.
Some years ago, when Carlton Sanders was judge here, both Randy West, my editor, and I were both subpoenaed for jury duty in criminal court. The judge wouldn’t excuse us ahead of time, even though he probably knew neither of us stood a chance of being picked. “It would be a really good experience for you to serve on a jury,” he told me. “Who knows. Maybe you’ll get picked. You would learn a lot.”
As luck would have it, we had to appear on a Tuesday morning. Tuesdays are our “crunch days,” our deadline days. A time to focus on the news, period. Randy and I both made it to the jury box for “detailed” questioning, when both sides get down to the nitty gritty.
The defendant, the “accused,” was represented by defense attorney Mike McDaniel, a well-known fellow in criminal court circles. The current prosecutor, Ron Simpson, had the same job then.
The usual question was put to Randy: “Do you know any of the attorneys in this case?” Ron asked.
“Yes, I know Mike McDaniel, and I know you,” Randy answered.
“How do you know me?” Ron asked. “Well, you’re our attorney,” Randy said, referring to O’Bannon Publishing Co., which owns The Corydon Democrat. (Ron was a part-time prosecutor then, and so he could represent clients who didn’t pose a conflict with his prosecutor job.)
“OK,” Ron said, “and tell me how you know Mike McDaniel.”
“I know if somebody’s guilty, they get Mike to represent them,” Randy said, not batting an eyelash!
“You don’t really want to serve on this jury, do you, Randy?”
“No, I don’t.”
To put it mildly, he was outa there!
I followed quickly. Only I was laughing hard, not quite believing what my boss had said, I can’t remember why I was thrown out.
In Randy’s defense, I must say his main concern that day was printing the news, not becoming part of it.
Like Randy and me, most people do not survive the attorneys’ questioning and usually leave the courtroom with a quiet sigh of relief, free to return to their normal, daily routines.
Before that happens, though, it would appear that most people do not like the idea of rejection, either by the defense or the prosecution, and will go to great lengths to explain or justify prejudices.
Like one fellow who was questioned last week as a prospective juror in the ongoing murder trial:
He was asked by defense attorney Leah Fink if he believed the defendant was guilty because he had been charged with the crime and was on trial. Fink also reminded the prospective juror that, legally, anyone accused of a crime in the United States is presumed “innocent until proven guilty.”
But that clearly wasn’t the way the man being questioned sees things.
“By law, yes,” he might be innocent, the man said, then added: “I tend to think he is probably guilty or he wouldn’t be here; but you might have evidence that shows he is clearly not guilty.”
Did he serve as a juror? Or was he excused?
You be the judge.