(Court of Appeals of New York) - Conviction for manslaughter is reversed where the trial court abused its discretion by prohibiting defense counsel from questioning prospective jurors about their views on involuntary confessions.
Anyone familiar with the jury selection process knows that it can be somewhat tedious. With this in mind, the District Clerk in Harris County, Texas thought that it might be a good idea to liven up the wait by bringing in police K-9 dogs during Juror Appreciation Week to show jurors how these dogs discover drugs. While the District Clerk might have had the best intentions, this was definitely a bad idea in light of the fact that the prosecution routinely uses evidence uncovered by dogs and their handlers to prosecute criminal defendants. It appears that the District Clerk got the message and that this K-9 training session for potential jurors will not be an annual event.
Presumed Fair? Voir Dire on the Fundamentals of Our Criminal Justice System
The American criminal justice system is built on three bedrock principles: the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof, and the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. These ideals, however, are frequently ignored by jurors. Social science research has shown that jurors routinely believe that a defendant must prove his innocence, and that the mere fact that the defendant is standing trial is proof of guilt. Jurors persist in these beliefs despite proper instructions on the law.
Despite the acknowledged centrality of these legal ideals, trial courts in many jurisdictions, routinely prevent defense attorneys from questioning prospective jurors on these fundamental legal issues based on a mistaken view that jurors will follow the given instructions. Unlike instructions, voir dire regarding prospective jurors’ ability or willingness to apply the presumption of innocence and hold the government to its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not granted uniformly across jurisdictions. While the Supreme Court has sanctioned voir dire in capital cases on whether jurors can impose the death penalty, it has thus far remained silent on whether there is a right under the Due Process Clause to question prospective jurors on the presumption of innocence and the government’s burden of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt. The states and federal circuits are split on the question.
This Article explores whether, in order to ensure fundamental principles of fairness, voir dire questions about the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof should be required in all criminal jury trials.
Starting Feb 2, 2015, courts in Massachusetts will move from judge conducted voir dire to attorney conducted voir dire. This change will impact both civil and criminal cases. To learn more about how attorney led voir dire will be handled in Massachusetts gohere.
Previously, I blogged about the challenges facing a Massachusetts Superior Court Judge who has the responsibility for empanelling 12 impartial jurors to hear the murder case of Caius Veiovis. The difficulty here is the defendant's facial features which have been significantly altered through implants, tattoos, and piercings (to see a picture of the defendant go here). The article below provides some insight on how the judge is conducting this very unique voir dire.
The judge presiding over the murder trial of Caius Veiovis has decided to voir dire the jurors on the defendant's physical appearance (to see a picture of the defendant go here). Not surprisingly, there is some concern that the defendant's implanted horns, nose piercing, and 666 tattoo may turn off jurors and prevent them from being impartial. At present, it isn't clear whether the defense attorney plans to use a make-up artist to alter, at least partially, the defendant's appearance prior to trial. In the past, courts have approved and paid for make-up artists for certain criminal defendants who had inflammatory tattoos. I am not sure how much you can do with horns.
Currently, Massachusetts is considering whether or not to change the way it conducts voir dire. At present, Massachusetts uses judge conducted voir dire. However, the Massachusetts House has passed legislation (H. 4123) to allow attorneys to conduct voir dire. The bill is now being debated in the Massachusetts Senate. It appears that the biggest argument against passing the legislation is increased costs.
To read more about the pros and cons of attorney conducted voir dire go here.
As some readers of this blog are aware, criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a public voir dire (Presley v. Georgia). What is less clear is whether this right can be waived and if so by whom? These issues were decided recently at least for the state of Massachusetts in Commonwealth v. Lavoie.
In Lavoie, the criminal defendant was on trial for murder. During jury selection of his trial, court officers instructed the defendant's father, mother and sister to leave the courtroom. This request was made in order to leave enough room for the jury venire. Apparently, the judge was unaware that the defendant's relatives had been asked to leave the courtroom. The defendant on the other hand knew this fact and was a little bothered about it. However, he never raised the issue with his attorney. At a subsequent hearing held after the defendant's conviction, counsel for the defendant stated that it was not his usual practice to object when court officers cleared the court for the following reasons: (1) court officers have a difficult job; (2) he doesn't want family members sitting near potential jurors; and (3) family members can be a distraction.
Based on these facts, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that counsel may waive, with or without the defendant's express consent, the right to a public trial during jury selection where the waiver is a tactical decision as part of counsel's trial strategy.
A federal judge denied a retrial on Tuesday for longtime Illinois powerbroker William Cellini, rejecting defense arguments that the 77-year-old didn't get a fair trial because a juror supposedly lied about her criminal past during jury selection
Late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James Zagel put an end — for now — to the latest flap over whether a juror’s failure to disclose her criminal background had unfairly tainted a high-profile federal conviction.But Zagel’s finding that Illinois Republican powerhouse William Cellini is not entitled to a new trial won’t resolve the underlying problem of how far the courts should go in investigating jurors and how to avoid ending up in the same pickle again.
This week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in Commonwealth v. Toolan, overturned the murder conviction of Thomas E. Toolan III. The defendant, a 44-year-old former Manhattan bank executive, had been convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend on Nantucket in 2007. The Supreme Judicial Court, which based its reversal in part on U.S. v. Skilling, found that the trial judge
did not conduct his examination [voir dire] in a way that would have allowed him to make a sound determination as to whether each juror was impartial despite the exposure. Instead, he shifted the burden of assessing impartiality from himself to individual members of the venire. [FN26] Jurors' answers to individual voir dire questions on the defense of lack of criminal responsibility provided some additional insight into their willingness to return not guilty verdicts, but did not directly address the impact of publicity and local community attitudes and their opinion on them.
Because the voir dire was insufficient to support a contrary conclusion, it is appropriate to assume in the context of this case that jurors who did not state otherwise were exposed to negative pretrial publicity.
This is the second recent high-profile case in which a state court has called into question the voir dire practices of the trial judge. In June, the NY Court of Appeals, in People v. Owen Steward, overturned a defendant's robbery conviction because the trial judge failed to identify prospective jurors by name, initials or panel number and only allowed defense counsel 5 minutes to conduct voir dire on each venire panel which generally consisted of 16 prospective jurors.