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Some Considerations for Criminal Defense Attorneys Involved with Jury Selection

Under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, criminal defendants are entitled to a public trial by an impartial jury. The selection of an impartial jury is designed to achieve a fair cross-section of the community. This process begins with the selection of a broad panel from which the jury is chosen, followed by the process of selection of the final jury members.
In Pennsylvania, jurors are selected from voter registration lists provided by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of State, Voter Registration Division, or the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) licensing records. In a typical county court, each year, names are randomly selected from the PennDOT list and those selected complete and return a juror qualification questionnaire. Data from the questionnaires is entered into the computer system and used for the selection of jurors for the following year. An array of individuals is selected for each trial term. Jurors typically report the Monday of each court term to the Jury Assembly Room of the local County Courthouse. When a courtroom is ready to call a case for trial, a panel of 30 or more jurors is randomly selected and sent to the courtroom.
Voir Dire
Voir Dire is a legal term, from the French, meaning “to speak the truth,” a historical reference to the oath administered to jurors before their service, which is used, in the criminal justice system to refer to the procedures used to determine an individual’s qualifications to be a juror for a particular case. Potential jurors are asked questions designed to ascertain information related to an individual’s experience, general feelings and potential fixed opinions about the case. This information is used to determine whether one side believes that they are predisposed to decide the case in a certain way, or whether than can remain impartial and open to review the facts of the case in an unbiased manner. Potential jurors, however, are not questioned about their knowledge of the law, as their role is limited to determining factual issues of the case, in an unbiased manner. This voir dire process is conducted by both the judge and the attorneys.
“For Cause” Challenges
During the selection process, after questioning each prospective juror, each attorney may challenge the qualifications of an individual through one of two ways. The attorney may move to challenge a prospective juror based on a specified reason, pertaining mainly to their ability to decide factual issues impartially and without personal bias, which is known as a challenge “for cause.” These challenges must be offered for valid reasons, subject to the approval of the Court. These reasons may include, for example, exposure to pretrial publicity about the case; a connection with a party, an attorney, the judge, or a witness in the case; experience as a victim of a crime that is similar to that being tried; or a religious prohibition on imposing a sentence or otherwise fulfilling his or her role, or gender, race, or other bias. Each party has an unlimited number of “for cause” challenges that it may make.
Peremptory Challenges
Each opposing side may also challenge a prospective juror’s qualifications, for which stating a reason for disqualification is not necessary. These are called “peremptory challenges.” The peremptory challenge is a legal long-established right as a means of giving both sides some involvement in forming the composition of a jury. In considering peremptory challenges, attorneys may consider factors such as a potential juror’s criminal background, socioeconomic status, occupation, familiarity with the legal system, or myriad other similar factors in determining whether they want an individual serve as a juror.
Because the attorneys for each party may make peremptory challenges without justifying them, court rules limit the number of peremptory challenges to a handful for each side. In federal criminal trials, the number of peremptory challenges allowed is ten for the defendant and six for the prosecution in a felony case, 20 for each side in a death penalty case, and three for each side in a misdemeanor case. The number of such challenges varies according to the charges in a criminal case. It should be understood that elimination from the jury panel must not be interpreted to be, in any way, a reflection upon an individual’s intelligence, ability or integrity.
The role of a jury is critically important in the American criminal justice system. A juror’s task is to determine the correct facts of each dispute between the parties. Any errors of law which the trial judge makes can be corrected by higher courts, but a juror’s decision on the facts usually will not be changed. Therefore, service as a juror is of extreme importance to the parties and should thus be undertaken with an earnest effort to make an honest, careful and deliberate decision, in order to serve the needs of the criminal justice system.
If you have been charged with a crime and are facing a jury trial, the attorneys at Tanner Law Offices can assist you or your loved ones in your criminal defense, including representing you in a jury trial. Please contact our office at 717-836-0471 to schedule a consultation to discuss the specifics of your case.