In Part I of this tale, the County of Santa Asphalt entrusted me to defend a man who robbed a store of its beer at knife-point. After a series of clumsy, ham-fisted questions by the judge and prosecuting attorney, all 18 of my potential jurors had taken the hint that “yes, I can be fair” was the “right” answer. I knew full well that my client had no chance; my only hope for saving my client from this jury was by making it more likely that they would turn on each other. So now it is my turn to question this 18-pack:
“Mr. DeGuerre, you may begin,” the judge intoned.
I stood and walked to the front of the jury box. This particular judge was known for letting the attorneys take as much time as they wanted (within reason) to spare himself the trouble of asking detailed questions. The real limiting factor was the attention span of the upstanding citizens before me whose regular lives were being interrupted.
Unfortunately, I started with almost no useful information about them. I had so little time to find it.
I looked at the file folder that held my notes. Every district attorney and public defender learns to keep their jury selection notes in the same manner. We start with a blank file folder and arrange 18 post-it notes inside of it in a 3×6 array. Each post-it represents one seat; the top two rows are for the 12 seats in the jury box and the bottom row is for the six who will replace jurors in the box as they are excused. On each post-it, I write notes about the person currently occupying that seat so I don’t unnecessarily repeat the same questions as the DA. One-by-one, the six seated in the front will replace those in the back 12 as they are dismissed.
When I walked toward the jury box to begin my questioning, I carried this folder with me. I glanced at it one last time before opening my mouth, and wondered for a split-second why I had brought it at all for all of the good it did me.
I clapped my folder closed and looked up at the 18 pairs of eyes, all of them wondering why real court was so much duller than court on TV, why none of the lawyers were even remotely attractive, and what on Earth I was possibly going to say to defend my client.
What on Earth was I going to say?
I then heard a whisper inside my head, a whisper replete with learned over-enunciation. John Adams’ ghost had returned, and reminded me that there was one sure way to lose a case through poor jury selection:
“The most frightful jury is a herd of sheep lead by a wolf.”
Jurors can be divided into two basic types: leaders and followers. Followers will outnumber the leaders. Many of the leaders will harbor biases against my client or my defense; I cannot hope to remove them all. My best option is to ensure that one or two bad leaders are not left with a flock of followers. When in doubt, followers will side with authority–or whomever is the most vocal–and convict my client.
John Adams’ ghost then warned:
“Don’t allow bad jurors to poison the well. Don’t allow good jurors to hang themselves.”
Every so often, a juror will land in the jury box who might single-handedly turn the tide in favor of your client. Perhaps they believe in the wholly Constitutional doctrine of jury nullification. Perhaps they take issue with the state prosecuting “victimless crimes” (these jurors are easy to spot, given their love of wearing sunglasses indoors). Perhaps they have heard or experienced too many colorful stories of police harassment. Unfortunately for my client, these jurors disqualify themselves through their pathological honesty; the judge will ask them if they can be fair, and they will answer honestly that they cannot give the state or its agents a fair shake.
In contrast, the retired police officer, the concerned mother who worries that acquitting your client will endanger her children, and the victim of a crime committed by a guy who looks alot like my client, will all assure themselves and the court that they can nevertheless be fair and impartial jurors in my client’s case. These magic words will keep them in the jury pool until I dismiss them myself.
No matter which group a juror falls into, he or she will talk for as long as I let them. I only need to hear a handful of words before I sort these jurors into one of the two categories. The favorable jurors will blurt out their inability to be fair if given enough opportunity, and the biased jurors will spout endless unfounded prejudice into the jury pool in the same amount of time. For the sake of everyone’s patience, I need to identify who goes in which box as soon as possible. If I tarry, the few good jurors will disqualify themselves. In that same amount of time, the bad jurors will spew their sewage into the rest of my jury pool.
And then, the long con:
“Delay the inevitable; sew discord.”
A jury cannot render a verdict of guilty unless all 12 agree. But to save my client, I need not convince all 12 of my client’s innocence. I simply need to keep them from agreeing with each other. A jury that cannot reach a unanimous verdict is called a hung jury; prosecutors often react to hung juries with a drastically reduced plea bargain. In a handful of cases that result in a hung jury, charges are dismissed outright. A hang is often a more attainable outcome than an acquittal and as good as a win for my client.
With this in mind, I began to question my jurors. I did my best to hear at least one original thought – not in the form of “yes” or “no” – from everyone in the jury box. I did not have time to actually know these people. I did, however, have just enough time to stereotype that person. I asked about their work lives to see if they had ever found themselves standing up to a group of their peers. I imagined potential arguments among the prospective jurors in my head, and I decided which jurors would create the most plausible stew for dischord.
I returned to my seat with 18 hunches.
His Honor dismissed the jurors who had made it clear, during my questioning, that they could not be fair. Once this was done, the DA and I began the “shoot-out.” In most felony trials, each attorney may dismiss any ten potential jurors for almost any reason she pleases. Each attorney alternates, and on each turn the attorney may strike a juror or pass and save their challenge for later.
“The first challenge is with the defense,” His Honor said while appearing to count the number of plaster tiles on the ceiling. I remembered that jury selection is interesting only to the lawyers doing it. As I and the prosecutor had been asking our questions, the judge had nodded off, the bailiff had thumbed through a gun magazine, and half of everyone else had been texting. My client, meanwhile, had been doodling his next tattoo on the notepad I had given him. No one other than the DA and myself saw this process as the thrilling cat-and-mouse game that it felt like for me.
“Your honor, the defense passes.”
The DA raised an eyebrow. Surely I was not going to leave the retired cop, and I was certainly going to kick the guy whose anxiety about life is so vast that he can’t stand to read the newspaper. But if those two were to end up on the same jury as the opinionated grad student and the movie theater employee who gets pulled over by the cops three times per week as he rides his bicycle to work, I just might hang that jury. I might still win.
Meanwhile the DA absolutely could not allow this jury mix. After four rounds, I had passed five times, giving me a 5 challenge advantage over the DA. I now had twice as much power to alter the mix of jurors to my liking. Jury selection continued like this for the remainder of the day, and ended when both the prosecutor and I passed. These 12 jurors and 2 alternates would be the ones to witness the trial.
Ten days later, His Honor declared a mistrial after the jury hung; 10 jurors had voted guilty against 2 for not guilty. Despite the split in favor of guilt, the DA would later make my client an offer with a single-digit prison term on a case that carried a possible life sentence. I considered this a win.
As I mentioned in the previous chapter of this story, jury selection is war by other means. But two sides will engage in war only when at least one of them is gravely mistaken about its prospects for success. If you are ever chosen for jury duty, remember that one of the two sides that you will hear from is very, very wrong about the strength of the case, the amount of punishment it is worth, or, in my case, the liklihood of 12 strangers agreeing on it. Remembering this might help you make sense of what you see in a real courtroom.