Saturday, September 29, 2007

Peremptorily Challenged Again

As I noted in a post a couple of days ago, I was on jury duty Thursday and Friday. As civic duty goes, I certainly can't complain about the experience (although I admit that my earlier post could be read as doing just that). With American men and women in the armed services suffering grievous injuries and dying on a daily basis, the inconvenience of spending a couple of days or even a couple of weeks away from the ordinary routine of work is a small price to pay for a functioning legal system. (People living paycheck to paycheck who must take time off from work suffer a substantially greater hardship.) My point there, which I'll belabor here, is that one aspect of jury service---peremptory challenges---makes it substantially more burdensome than it needs to be, without generating any real benefit. I make that point fully aware that, in the scheme of things, the burden is relatively light (especially for people like me, who get paid in full during jury service).

This was my fifth time on jury duty (my fourth time in New York), and I have never been chosen for a jury. I also don't believe that I have ever been excused for cause, because I always give the sort of answers that should prevent being dismissed for cause: In none of the cases for which I've been examined have I known any of the participants, I understand that my job is to follow the law as the judge explains in the charge, and I will not let my own personal experiences or sympathies interfere with my duty to apply the law. Nonetheless, I'm always bounced. Why?

If I were a trial lawyer, I'd be worried that having a law professor or, for that matter, a lawyer of any sort, on the jury, could result in that one juror dominating the others. Even if the law professor or lawyer followed the law as provided by the judge, the other jurors might look to him for guidance, and quite apart from that, lawyers are trained to make persuasive arguments, so even without giving the lawyer/law professor juror any added deference, his views could have greater weight in deliberations because expressed more persuasively than those of lay jurors.

Who benefits? In a criminal case, I'd have to say the prosecution. A single sympathetic juror can hang a jury, and a few hung juries are almost as good as an acquittal. Thus, a juror who makes it more likely that other jurors will come around to his viewpoint has an asymmetrical effect. If the lawyer/law professor is for acquittal, it's true that this will help the defense, but probably not as much as it would hurt the defense for a pro-conviction lawyer/law professor juror to sway any holdouts towards conviction.

This analysis jibes with my gut sense---and per Stephen Colbert, I always trust my gut---that defense attorneys have been the ones using their peremptories against me. That's also consistent with the limited picture they get of me from the voir dire: For example, this past week's case was a robbery prosecution, and I answered "yes" to whether I'd been a crime victim. In 1990 I was robbed by a gunman at an ATM. I also answered "yes" to whether I'd ever worked with or for law enforcement, since I externed in a D.A.'s office for 5 months in my third year of law school. Put together these seemingly pro-law enforcement experiences with the asymmetrical effect of a dominant juror and it's easy to see why a defense attorney would want me off the jury.

But would my presence on a jury actually benefit the prosecution? I tend to doubt it. Again, I answer truthfully when I say I can follow the law, but I'm, well, a liberal, which means that I'm probably more likely to find reasonable doubt on a given presentation of the evidence than someone who's more conservative. I can't say for sure, but it seems at least plausible that the defense attorneys who have been using their peremptories to bump me (if my analysis is right) over the years, have been making an understandable miscalculation. By providing lawyers with just enough information to make wild guesses about a juror's sympathies, our system of voir dire and peremptory challenges shows itself to be worse than useless.

17 comments:

Paul said...

Or perhaps merely useless for those with the resources only to make their decisions based on voir dire. Perhaps those with sufficient resources can gain enough additional information to make their choices on peremptory challenges more successful to their ultimate goals. This of course does not necessarily mean it is worth the overall costs on the system nor that such a result is even a good thing.

Carl said...

Maybe next time you can just tell that that you teach at a vocational school in Manhattan.

No Exit said...

i wouldn't be so sure that it is primarily defense attorneys who are excusing you.

afterall, a defense attorney can probably guess which way you lean politically and if he feels he has a good case, having a persuasive juror in the box could be of immeasurable assistance.

in cases where there are powerful sympathies at play in favor of the prosecution, it could be beneficial to have a persuasive perspective from a cooler head.

my gut tells me you'd be a good juror if i were truly innocent.

Joel said...

Mike, it's entirely possible that attorneys who strike you are doing so in error. This conclusion, tenuous as it is, hardly seems to justify a more universal deduction that the system of peremptory challenges isn't working. What do you say to the empirical research showing the impact of jury selection on outcomes, or the anecdotes any trial lawyer will provide illustrating how voir dire dramatically altered a case?

I just started a several month gig as a DA, so I should have more firsthand experience soon, but my last jury trial was ten years ago. It was a prisoner civil rights case in federal court, resulting from a shooting by a guard. I had a bad feeling about one potential juror, and my client (the inmate) had an even stronger feeling. I didn't strike the juror, even though my client asked me to, because it didn't seem like I had a good enough reason. After the trial, we learned from talking to other jurors that the one we declined to strike had kept the jury from making a much larger damages award.

So certainly, trial attorneys can get it wrong (and if you think about it, most lawyers get a lot of things wrong: there's quite a bit of mediocrity to be found in courts across the nation!), but I don't agree that voir dire doesn't affect the overall bas of the jury, or lack thereof.

Joel Jacobs

P.S. Not really on point, but you may be interested to know that three APDA/Swat alumni (John Gastil, '89; Phil Weiser '90 and Perry Deess '88), who are in different academic fields, are collaborating on a study of the effect of jury service on civic participation.
http://depts.washington.edu/jurydem/index.html

Michael C. Dorf said...

For Joel: I don't deny that the use of peremptories can make a difference. But it will sometimes make an unfair difference and more often will just waste jurors' time. So Paul is right that my claim based on my own experience was aimed at making the broader point I made a few days ago. I'd be interested in the bottom line of the empirical research (which is in some sense unknowable because we don't have a baseline for figuring out what the REALLY right outcome is).

Sasha said...

Mike,

Much of the problem is not the existence of the peremptory challenges, but the fact that lawyers are allowed to pepper prospective jurors with questions that are so tangential to fitness to serve. In federal court, although peremptories are permitted, questioning of the jurors is often restricted to the bare minimum needed to ascertain that there is no direct conflict, e.g., do you know any of the parties or lawyers. Certainly the judge I clerked for would never permit lawyers to ask, for example, whether a prospective juror had ever been mugged. As the saying goes, a little information is a dangerous thing -- best not to let lawyers have a little information out of which they can draw vast unwarranted inferences.

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