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I, The Jury, Part II: Voir Dire

As we noted yesterday, we are going to run a series of reader reports on their jury service, in hopes of giving those folks who have little or no experience on this front (a group that includes both V & Z) some useful insight into the process. Yesterday, we covered the general predisposition against jurors with certain kinds of experience or expertise. Today, it's readers' experience with voir dire:

R.R. in Pasadena, CA: I served as the foreperson on a jury trial a year before the pandemic; it was a civil trial that took about three weeks. I think everyone should serve on a jury at least once so they understand how the justice system really works, it's not like TV cases at all... though there was a bit of drama in our case that felt ripped from the flatscreen. There are a few things that I think will be key for the Trump documents trial, based on what I went through:

One thing I should note: I was put on the jury despite my four advanced degrees including a Ph.D. in astronomy. That actually came up in voir dire, I was asked about what I do and my educational background came up. The defense attorney slipped up and asked me about "astrology"... I made some kind of joke that got everyone including the judge to laugh. I still ended up being picked, when common wisdom is lawyers reject anyone with a Ph.D. by instinct. I guess the lesson is not to be funny and personable during voir dire if you want to avoid serving on a jury.

G.K. in Blue Island, IL: I've served on a jury within the past five years, and the short answer is: "No, nothing about that experience would give me any insights into what might unfold in the Trump documents case."

There's a reason associated with that though, that is itself an insight (I feel). Despite voir dire, juries are essentially a random assemblage of citizens, and—probabilistically speaking—they manifest a bell curve of critical thinking skills, human interaction skills, emotional maturity, empathetic capability, etc.

Although Henry Fonda's character in Twelve Angry Men is framed as a hero and champion of American justice, I'm sure it happens just as often that justice is decidedly not served because a single hold-out dug in their heels and the others in the room were not gifted with the skills to lead them to a non-biased, evidence-based conclusion.

Paramount to the process, I think, are the judge's instructions to the jury, as well as the judge's response to any questions or requests from the jury. This is why the selection of Judge Cannon is problematic for some, since she didn't seem to exhibit a good knowledge of relevant laws and legal concepts earlier in the documents investigation.

In short, despite federal prosecutors' success rate at securing convictions, I feel like anything could happen given the extraordinary natures of the defendant, the judge, and the Florida jury pool.

R.E. in Birmingham, AL: I served on a jury about 13 years ago. It was a civil case between two long-divorced people who apparently spent all their time and money suing one another. It was icky.

When we got to the jury room, I was almost instantly selected as jury foreman based on the fact that I was the only juror who took notes and, you know, paid full attention. In our case, the ex-husband had sued the ex-wife because she called the sheriff on him when he came to her house, and he spent the weekend in jail. In his instructions to us, the judge had explained the elements that the plaintiff had to prove in order to prevail. I wrote those on a whiteboard, and then turned around to face my peers on the jury. Most of them were looking at me like I had been speaking Greek, and then engaged in an animated conversation about who they thought should win, based entirely on their individual senses of "right and wrong."

We eventually reached what I thought was the only defensible verdict, in part by persuasion and in part because some of them just got tired of the process and went along with anything that would get them out of the room.

To give you a sense of the level of understanding and analysis that was taking place, I have to include an event that happened during the trial itself. We were on a break, and a fellow juror sidled up to me and asked "What happens if we find him guilty?" He was asking me what would happen if we rendered a verdict of "guilty" against the PLAINTIFF in a CIVIL case. Good Lord.

The gravity of the Trump trial is on a whole different level, of course. Hopefully, the process for selecting jurors will be more rigorous, and the jurors will take their jobs much more seriously. That being said, it isn't always enough to have a "slam dunk" case to win at trial. Once the jury room door closes behind them, the jurors are on their own, and anything can happen. The wrong mix of personalities could lead to an outcome unsupported by the facts or the law.

G.M. in Laurence Harbor, NJ: Having served on a grand jury and on several juries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, nothing surprises me. In Pennsylvania, the defense attorney noticed an elderly member of our jury was slumped over and brought it to the attention of the judge during opening remarks. The judge called the juror several times using her juror number. After a few calls with no results, he directed the bailiff to check her out. Juror #7 was okay, she was just asleep. When asked about it, she responded effectively: "I'm sorry my hearing aid is dead. If I didn't have to be here so early, I would have been able to stop and get new batteries."

H.S. In Lake Forest, CA: I served on a jury in San Diego County in 2016 after having been naturalized a few years prior. Despite the case interfering with my busy work schedule, I felt inclined to participate to fulfill my civic duty as a relatively new citizen of the U.S.

The jury selection process was interesting. The court questioned about 50 prospective jurors on various aspects related to the case, which involved drug and gun possession by a previous felon. In the end, there were a lot of dismissals of prospective jurors with too strong a view of pro- or anti-gun rights. In addition, anyone with a past traumatic experience involving law enforcement, guns or drugs was also dismissed. This resulted in 12 jurors, including myself, who were Caucasian (9), Asian (1), or Latino (2), with the defendant an African American. The 5-10 African-American prospective jurors and also a similar number of Latinos were all dismissed due to describing past traumatic experiences with law enforcement and/or guns.

Following the court proceedings, we went into deliberation. I, for one, was not impressed by the case made by the prosecution. But I also learned that, as a scientist, my definition of "reasonable doubt" apparently does not match that of the general public.

If I came away with one general conclusion that could relate to the Trump case, it is that the jury selection process is by no means perfect. Of the 12 jurors that made it through, three were outright racists, one lied to the judge on whether he ever had a traumatic experience with guns in his past, and most just wanted to get it over with as fast as possible. But there will be a few good people on any jury. So these few good people's view point and their ability to persuade the jurors of lesser intellect will likely determine the outcome of Trump's trial. Based on my past experience, I am much less convinced than you that an unbiased jury can be assembled in Florida.

More on Friday! (Z)

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