Former police officer Derek Chauvin currently stands trial facing second-degree unintentional murder, second-degree manslaughter, and third-degree murder charges for George Floyd’s death. Floyd’s death last May sparked protests with thousands calling for change in the nation’s criminal justice system.
The jury selection process for this trial was finalized after eleven days of questioning by the prosecution and defense attorneys. The jury process was highly scrutinized due to the high publicity associated with the trial.
In the end, 15 jurors were chosen to serve on the jury. Among those seated there are three black men, one black woman, two multiracial women, two white men, and six white women. But how were these jurors selected?
Jury Selection and “Voir Dire”
The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury in criminal cases. States have a list of citizens they compile from different sources including voter registration and the DMV. From this list, potential jurors are randomly selected.
Both the defense attorney and the prosecutor will question potential jurors to determine whether they are suitable to serve in the case. This process is known as “voir dire,” or “to speak the truth”.
This process may vary from state to state. But in general, the attorneys and the judge will question the potential juror about multiple issues including the juror’s:
- Views and stances on certain matters
- Pre-existing knowledge about the case
The prosecutors and the defense in the Chauvin trial sent a questionnaire to see whether potential jurors could serve without being influenced. The questions addressed multiple issues including whether the jurors trust the police and whether they thought the criminal justice system treats black people unfairly.
Attorneys can remove potential jurors from serving after questioning them. They can remove them either for cause or through peremptory challenges.
Removing for Cause
If either the defense lawyer or the prosecution believes a prospective juror is prejudiced about a case, they may ask the juror to be removed for cause. A juror can be removed for cause in many scenarios. Some of them include whether the juror:
- Is a close relative of the parties
- Already formed an opinion about the particular case
- Has any financial interest in the outcome of the case
- Is biased or prejudiced against one party or another
In most cases, both lawyers can an unlimited number of jurors for cause.
In the Chavin trial, a number of jurors were excused for cause. A notable example was when the judge excused two jurors who said they couldn’t be impartial after hearing about the 27 million dollar settlement the city reached with Floyd’s family.
Peremptory challenges allow a lawyer to excuse a juror without cause if they believe a potential juror will not serve the best interest of their client. Lawyers have a fixed number of peremptory challenges they can use. In general, defense attorneys have more peremptory challenges than prosecution in felony cases.
In this particular trial, the judge gave the defense attorneys fifteen peremptory strikes and the prosecutors nine.
In a peremptory challenge, neither side is required to give a reason to strike a juror. This right, however, has one big exception. Attorneys can’t strike a juror based on their race. In Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court ruled that “peremptory challenges can’t be used to systematically strike jurors based on their race.”
Flowers Vs. Mississippi is a notable example where the Supreme Court struck down a conviction based on racially biased jury selection. In this case, the defendant Curtis Flowers was prosecuted six times for the same crime. In the first four trials, the state tried to peremptorily strike all the 36 prospective black jurors.
Why Is Jury Selection Important?
People who serve in a jury come with their own thoughts, values, and life experiences. So, selecting jurors with the ability to keep an open mind and be unbiased is crucial to ensure a fair trial.
Thus, jury selection becomes important for different reasons. It ensures the legitimacy of the trial, that a juror is unbiased, and that potential jurors will not be discriminated against based on race, gender, or ethnicity.