For the defendant in a criminal prosecution, one of the most important decisions that must be made is deciding how to resolve the case. Unless the prosecuting attorney decides to dismiss all the charges, the options are to accept a guilty plea agreement negotiated between the defense attorney and the prosecuting attorney or to take the case to trial and allow a judge or jury to decide the issue of guilt. If you are currently facing criminal charges in the State of Tennessee and you have decided to take your case to a jury trial, selecting the jury will be a crucial phase of your trial. After all, the jurors chosen to hear your case will ultimately decide your fate. Unless you have been through a jury trial before you probably don’t know much about the jury selection process. To help you prepare for your upcoming trial, a Smyrna criminal defense attorney explains jury selection.
Your Right to a Trial by a Jury of Your Peers
Your right to a trial by jury is one of several important rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and located in the first ten Amendments thereto, collectively referred to as the “Bill of Rights.” Your jury trial rights are found in the 6th Amendment which reads 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 defence.”
Although we all refer to the right to a “jury of your peers,” you will note that it never actually says that in the 6th Amendment. Instead, it refers to an impartial jury.
Who Are the Prospective Jurors?
In the State of Tennessee, prospective jurors are selected from the Department of Motor Vehicles data base. When a jury trial is scheduled, a set number of potential jurors are randomly chosen from the DMV data base and sent a summons to appear for jury duty. On the date of trial, the prospective jurors report for jury duty and are typically required to complete a juror questionnaire.
Voir Dire – Selecting the Jury
Voir dire is the legal term used to refer to the jury selection process. Although each court determines the exact protocol for voir dire in that court, there are some common steps, including:
- Review of questionnaire – the defense attorney and prosecuting attorney are given copies of all juror questionnaires to review. Typically, if the case is a major case, the questionnaires are completed days or weeks ahead of time for review; however, for a case involving less serious charges the attorneys may only get the questionnaires minutes before voir dire begins. The questionnaires can vary in length and will include basic information about the prospective jurors and will ask questions intended to illicit legal reasons why the individual cannot serve as a juror.
- Prospective jurors brought in for questioning – a small group of prospective jurors is brought into the courtroom to begin the process.
- Questioning of prospective jurors – sometimes the judge handles most of the questioning while in others the attorneys do all the questioning. Questioning the jury pool is somewhat of an art form because seemingly innocuous questions, such as “what is your favorite movie/book” can tell a lawyer much about an individual.
- Challenges for cause – both sides may make an unlimited number of challenges for cause. A challenge for cause asks the judge to excuse an individual based on a legal reason why he/she cannot serve, such as bias or a pre-existing relationship with one of the parties to the case.
- Peremptory challenges – each side may also exercise a limited number of peremptory challenges. The number depends on the severity level of the charges. A peremptory challenge excuses a prospective juror for any reason at all (except discriminatory reasons). This is each sides opportunity to shape the final jury.
If you are currently facing criminal charges in Tennessee, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Smyrna criminal defense attorney at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby as soon as possible to ensure that your rights are protected. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.
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