Voir Dire: (vwar DEER), the process by which persons are questioned in order to determine their suitability and qualifications to serve on a fair and impartial jury. (the old French, “to speak the truth”)
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, … save by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. Magna Carta, 1215 A.D.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…Amendment VI, United States Constitution
There lay the document, waiting for me in my mailbox. In its upper left-hand corner, the seal of the State of New York Unified Court System proclaimed the mailing to be official. Across its face, a wide lavender stripe bore the large, bold words in all capital letters, “IMPORTANT: JURY SUMMONS ENCLOSED.” In much smaller type, words warned that the willful disobedience of the summons is criminal contempt of court, punishable by a fine of $1,000; 30 days in jail, or both.
Some recipients might view this as an imposition or a pain in the butt; but not me. Although serving on a jury is regarded as a civic duty, I prefer looking back nearly 800 years, and seeing it as a civic privilege. It is one of the privileges living in a country governed by the rule of law, justice, and freedom. As they say, freedom isn’t free, and with freedom comes responsibility. Over the years, I’ve been proud to give a couple of weeks of my time to sit on juries, because the alternative could be tyranny, injustice, and totalitarianism. No, thanks. Remember guys like Caligula, Ivan the Terrible, Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein? When the Commissioner of Jurors summons me, I’ll be there – gladly.
What Happens isn’t Painful
Each week, a few hundred loyal citizens are summoned to serve as a pool of potential jurors whom the presiding judge, defense and prosecuting attorneys select the final jurors and alternates. These few hundred, each assigned a juror number, assemble in a large meeting room where walls are adorned by large gold seals of the Unified Court System. Last month, as one of these citizens, I felt pride looking at our American flag standing at the front of the room. I’m not saying that Superman’s slogan, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” came to my mind at that moment, but maybe it did.
Dawn, a representative from the Commissioner of Jurors office, briefed us in detail about procedures, complexities of remuneration, the law, and invited anyone with particular problems to speak with her individually. She even addressed issues as mundane as parking, coffee, lunch, and restrooms. The people in the commissioner’s office were making every effort to allay any of our concerns, and to minimize whatever inconvenience jury service might cause us.
I’ll See You in Court
When Judge Thomas A. Breslin was ready, about 80 of us made our way to his courtroom where he addressed us from the bench. He stressed the importance of jury service and uniqueness of our judicial system. I don’t think any one of us was unmoved by the profound significance of what lay before us, particularly as Judge Breslin read a six-count criminal indictment to us in the presence of the defendant, his attorney, and the assistant district attorney. A person’s freedom or imprisonment would hang in the balance, although the judge emphasized “an indictment proves nothing,” and the defendant is innocent unless proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt. The weight of our responsibility struck heavily as the judge swore us in as a group.
Our juror numbers had been placed in a rotating drum and 21 were now drawn by lot. One by one, as they were called, potential jurors left the gallery and moved into the jury box. The voir dire began with each person rising to give a brief thumbnail of their family status and occupation. After asking if anyone knew the attorneys or the defendant, Judge Breslin read a list of witnesses who might be called to testify in order to determine if anyone knew them. Other simple questions were asked before the judge moved onto questions he regarded as “more invasive.” Had anyone been a victim of a crime or ever been accused of one?
Prospective jurors were given the choice of answering publicly or discreetly at the bench.
Following the judge’s questions, a handful of 21 were excused and replaced by others from the pool. The attorneys then began their questioning. The goal was not educating jurors, but determining their suitability and competence, ensuring selection of a fair and impartial jury. Questions of bias, prejudice, and presumed innocence may carry special significance.
After the attorneys finished questioning the panel, they met with Judge Breslin at the bench. Of the 21 questioned, 13 were excused, eight were sworn in as jurors for the case, another group of 21 was chosen by lottery, and the voir dire process began all over again. By the time the 12 jurors and two alternates were finally selected and sworn in, 60 people from our pool of 80 had gone through questioning under oath, in order to find the impartial jury that our Constitution guarantees. The remaining 20, including myself, who had not been questioned, were excused with thanks, our obligation fulfilled for a few years.
The members of the jury who were selected prepared themselves to carry a small portion of our freedom in their hands. I thank them.
Ed. Lange writes “Guy Stuff” monthly for Capital Region Living. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.