During the Sandusky trial, MaleSurvivor Communications Committee Chair Thomas Hodson (who is himself a former attorney, trial judge, and is now a journalist) will be sharing with us some helpful explanations of the stages of a criminal trial. Our hope is that sharing this information here will help people better understand what is going on behind the scenes, and eliminate some of the confusion and uncertainty that will inevitably come up. Please follow our Twitter (@malesurvivorORG) and Facebook pages for more information and reactions as well.
The first step in any jury trial is jury selection, also called voir dire. That starts on June 5 in the Sandusky case.
In some trials, the process may only take a few minutes but in high visibility cases, selecting a jury may take days or weeks. Each court and each state has its own jury selection procedure but the common thread is that potential jurors are questioned to determine whether they have any pre-conceived bias in a case.
Sometimes, the judge is the only one who asks potential jurors questions. In other instances, both the prosecution and the defense are entitled to inquire of the potential jurors. The questions are highly personal and may be embarrassing to the potential juror. The would-be jurors answer under oath. This process may also be extremely tedious for court observers. However, most trial attorneys will tell you that voir dire is often the most important stage of the trial.
The court’s goal is to have a fair and impartial jury. However, each side will try to select jurors who, it is thought, will be more inclined in a particular direction. Judges aim for fair juries and attorneys want jurors leaning their way.
There are two ways that a potential juror can be removed. One is for cause and a second is by the use of a peremptory challenge.
“For cause” means that a juror has some preconceived opinion about the case that he/she cannot set aside to be fair and impartial. Pre-trial publicity may cause a potential juror to have already fixed an opinion that cannot be shaken either by the state or the defendant. It may also include friends, relatives, clients or former clients of attorneys, witnesses, law enforcement, parties or other participants in the trial.
Each side will try to determine whether a potential juror should be removed for cause. However, the judge makes the ultimate decision. The number of jurors who can be eliminated “for cause” is unlimited so attorneys sometimes will advocate strongly to have a particular potential juror removed “for cause.”
If there are a high number of potential jurors removed for cause, then the defense will often move the court for a change of venue to a different geographical location where fewer people may have preconceived opinions. This, however, is difficult in a case of high national notoriety.
A second means for the parties to remove potential jurors is through an alternating system of peremptory challenges. These would-be jurors can be removed for almost any reason (other than race). Sometimes, the state and the defense will use hired jury selection consultants to help them select which jurors to bump.
Each side has a limited number of peremptory challenges. The exact number these challenges changes from state to state and sometimes can be determined by the court prior to the start of the trial. They are often protected like gold by the attorneys and used in ways to advance a particular trial strategy and to try to tip the jury one way or the other.
If the court allows the attorneys to question potential jurors, court observers may be able to determine certain trial strategies by the questions that are asked. Attorneys from both sides start selling the merits or demerits of each case during jury selection.
Once the panel of jurors is finally selected, the judge also will seat alternate jurors. Those alternates are selected by a similar process. An alternate would take the place of the actual juror if, for some reason, that juror was excused from the trial. The longer the case is expected to take, the more alternates are usually seated.
Some reports are suggesting that jury selection will take the rest of the week and the trail itself may be starting next Monday. The trial is expected to last a ewf weeks before being given to the jury.
Edited by Chris Anderson (06/06/12 10:40 PM)