As the defendant in a criminal prosecution, you are entitled to several important rights that are guaranteed to you by the U.S. Constitution. One of those rights is the right to a trial by jury. If you exercise this right, it means that you are allowing members of the community to decide your fate. Who are these members of the community that make up your jury? How are they chosen? DO you, as the accused, have any control over who ends up on your jury? To help answer these questions, a Murfreesboro criminal attorney explains voir dire, which is the formal term used to describe the jury selection process.
The Sixth Amendment
The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, collectively referred to as the “Bill of Rights,” is where most of your rights as an accused can be found. This includes your right to a trial by jury, found in the Sixth Amendment which read as follows:
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
Prospective Juror List
When a trial is scheduled, the county clerk’s office will compile list of names that are randomly selected by a computer from information kept by the Tennessee Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Everyone on that list receives a summons ordering them to appear at the courthouse at the date and time shown on the summons. These people represent the original jury pool from which the final jury of 12 people will be seated. A juror questionnaire will be filled out by each prospective juror at some point. Some courts send this out ahead of time while others hand it out the day of the trial. The questionnaire is used to determine if you are qualified to serve on the jury as well as to provide basic demographic information about the prospective jurors.
Voir Dire — Choosing the Jury
On the day of trial, everyone on the prospective juror list will arrive at the court and be held outside of the courtroom. An initial group of 12 (sometimes more) prospective jurors will be brought into the courtroom for the Voir Dire process. The judge, the defense attorney, and the prosecuting attorney will then be allowed to question the prospective jurors. Questions can seem very random, such as “What is the last movie you watched?” or “What color is your car?” Other questions may be directly related to the case being tried, such as “Do you know anyone involved in the case?” or “Have you ever been a victim of a violent crime?” Whether obvious or not, every question asked during voir dire is intended to tell the person who asked it something about the prospective juror. The answers help both the prosecution and the defense decide if the person should be excused for cause or if a peremptory challenge should be used to excuse the individual.
Challenges for cause request that a prospective juror be removed because there is a legal reason why he/she should not serve on the jury, such as bias or knowledge of the case/defendant. Both the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney may make as many challenges for cause as they deem relevant. The judge ultimately decides if the challenge is valid. If so, the person is excused.
Peremptory challenges are used by each side to excuse jurors that they believe will not be favorable to their side. A peremptory challenge can be made for any reason, other than for a discriminatory reason, and do not have to be explained. There are, however, limits to the number of peremptory challenges each side may use, as follows:
- Death Penalty Case — if the offense is punishable by death, 15 peremptory challenges per defendant for each side.
- Imprisonment More Than Year — if the offense is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year, 8 peremptory challenges per defendant per side.
- Imprisonment Less Than Year or Fine — if the offense is punishable by imprisonment for less than one year or by fine or both, 3 peremptory challenges per defendant per side.
As prospective jurors are excused, others are brought in for questioning. Once both the prosecution and the defense have exhausted their peremptory challenges, the people remaining in the courtroom become the final jury.
Contact a Murfreesboro Criminal Attorney
If you have additional questions or concerns about the Voir Dire process in the State of Tennessee, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Murfreesboro criminal attorney as soon as possible. Contact the team at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.