Jury Trials and Art of Voir Dire

03.07.2024 General

What is a trial by jury?

            One way to describe trial by jury is a legal proceeding where a group of citizens decide facts and remedies related to a dispute based on witness testimony and evidence. Jury members should be impartial, meaning they have no interest in the outcome and are free of bias and prejudice. Jury members should also come from the community where the trial is being conducted. Western civilization instituted the trial by jury           system with the intent to guard against tyrannical kings and governments. Our Bill of Rights recognizes the right to trial by jury in the sixth and seventh amendments.

How common are jury trials?

            Jury trials occur Monday through Friday in every state across the country. But the likelihood of your individual case reaching a trial by jury is very rare. Courthouse data suggests that only about 2-4% of civil cases and 4-8% of criminal cases result in a jury trial and often it takes one or two years for a case to be ready for a jury trial. Civil jury trials have been declining as trial judges impose mediation requirements hoping the parties can reach an agreed resolution with a qualified mediator. In criminal cases, prosecutors and defendants frequently negotiate to reach an agreed resolution to avoid a jury trial. The American legal system includes many methods of dispute resolution. By the time a case reaches the jury trial phase, that case and the parties deserve a fair, impartial trial by jury.           

What happens during a jury trial?          

  1. Voir Dire aka The Jury Selection Process

          Before the jury is selected, the parties and judge will have a conference to identify and define the scope of issues to discuss with the jury. As the jury panel enters the courtroom you are handed a sign with a number on it and instructed to sit in a particular area. The judge will begin voir dire usually by providing the jury panel with a brief description of the type of case and what to expect. Voir dire is a French term meaning “to speak the truth” and is a process in which the jury panel is asked questions and provides answers intended to identify qualified and suitable jurors.

          After the question-and-answer part, each litigant may motion the judge to strike for cause (i.e. remove from the panel) jurors that exhibited bias and prejudice in their individual answers. Then the parties have an opportunity to use a limited number of peremptory challenges to eliminate any other potential juror without stating a reason. Any juror that has been removed or excused from the jury panel is asked to leave the courtroom and then the first 12 jurors remaining are selected for the jury trial.     

2. The Trial

          After the jury has been selected they are moved to the jury box. The court will then administer an oath to the jury members that requires them to evaluate the evidence, follow the law, and answer the questions on the jury charge truthfully. The judge also gives the jury additional instructions and guidelines.

          Next comes opening statements where each litigant receives an opportunity to provide a preview of important facts, expected evidence, and context of the case in the form of storytelling.

          The person or entity (e.g. Plaintiff or State) that initiated the litigation has the burden of proof at trial. The party with the burden of proof will present their case to the jury first and typically begins by calling a witness to the witness stand to elicit oral testimony or discuss evidence. The number of witnesses required and the volume of evidence shown at trial depends on the nature and severity of the dispute. When the party with the burden of proof concludes presenting evidence the other party may present evidence.

          Once both parties have completed their presentation of evidence the parties are then allowed a brief time to present a closing argument to the jury. At closing, the litigants summarize the evidence and the case but also discuss the jury charge. They include jury instructions which are directions to the jury regarding deliberations and list the standards and questions the jury will decide. Finally, the jury is shuttled to the jury deliberation room to reach a verdict.  

3. Verdict

          Black’s Law Dictionary defines verdict as “[a] jury’s findings or decision on the factual issues of a case.” Traditional Western legal standards require the jury’s findings be unanimous in both criminal and civil cases, but civil cases have more flexibility on the unanimous finding rule. In the deliberation room, jurors are instructed to pick a jury foreperson and begin discussing the case. Jurors can reference their handwritten notes in their court-provided notepad they used during the trial. Juries usually receive a trial exhibit binder containing documentary evidence which can be reviewed in deliberations. Sometimes juries as questions or request that they hear witness testimony again.

          Once the jury reaches a verdict the jury foreperson will ring a bell to inform the court bailiff of the verdict. The litigants are ushered back into the courtroom and then the jury is seated in the jury box. The verdict is read into open court. Litigants may request the judge to ask the individual jurors to verify their decision. But once the verdict is delivered into open court the jury is allowed to leave and be relieved of jury duty. If the jury members are willing, they may stay afterwards to chat with the lawyers from each side and provide feedback on the trial.

Case Closed

          The United States’ right of trial by jury is focused on individual freedoms and the protection of legal rights. One special aspect of the American legal system is that the jury will consist of local community members, not a panel of legal bureaucrats as is common in many parts of the world. Meagan and Holland DeKeyzer have studied the art of Voir Dire and tried jury trials together and separately over their careers. The husband-wife trial team bring a special touch to jury trials that have been proven effective for their clients.

          Contact DeKeyzer Law at (713) 904-4004 for a FREE personal injury consultation.