In the past six weeks, Courtney and I have tried two criminal cases in Ada County. The first case charged vehicular manslaughter – two felony counts. Last week we tried a case that charged aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and injury to jails (both felonies), as well as misdemeanor counts of false imprisonment, battery and destruction of a communication device (a cell phone). We picked juries in each case, and had the benefit of a jury consultant on the manslaughter case. As we have earlier reported in this blog, the jury in the manslaughter found our client not guilty of the felonies. Last week the jury in the aggravated assault case said not guilty as to the disputed charges (but guilty of the battery in the face of a self-defense claim), but guilty of the two misdemeanors our client had admitted committing.
So what did we learn?
In each case we approached the process of jury selection as one of inclusion, not exclusion. This is a Trial Lawyers College ("TLC") thing. Getting rid of folks from the panel is always tricky, even with a jury consultant, because lawyers are usually looking to "craft" a panel of jurors who are more likely to go their way than the way of their opponent. The problem with that approach is that we are not as "crafty" as we believe. So the TLC approach is different – start instead with your biggest fear in the case and work your way through this with the potential jurors. So we start by admitting we have potential problem areas in the case, and ask the jurors if they are going to be able to remain open to the balance of the case even knowing about the problems. We try to include folks by talking about the warts, and then getting the juror to open up about his or her feelings. Sounds all "touchy-feely" doesn’t it? I think it works.
Let’s consider the problem posed by a recent client’s admissions that he had hit his girlfriend. Guy hitting girl equals problem. Growing up as men in society, we hear repeatedly a universal truths: "men don’t hit girls." Period. Ever. So when we have a client who has done that – struck a woman – you need to talk about it early and often with potential jurors because it goes against this deep seated belief we have as men. We talk it out and see if the jurors can get past it and get to the issue that they must decide.
Of course all this talk about inclusion is in some ways just talk. At the end of the day the lawyer has to decide which jurors represent the biggest obstacle to a fair trial based on their answers and their experience. With thousands of dollars paid to jury consultants, I have never forgotten the words of the Hat – "experience trumps everything else." He is right about that. Any juror who has had an experience with domestic violence cannot help but have a predisposition one way or the other in a domestic violence case. If you can get them talking they will tell you whether they can serve fairly.
But back to the question – what did we learn?
First, we learned that the TLC process works to identify the potential trouble spots with jurors. Spence says that if you are willing to show the jurors your weakness (area of concern) they will talk about their own fears. I think that is exactly what happened in both cases. In the manslaughter case I talked about my fear that people might immediately conclude a person with poor vision has no place driving on the road. The jurors opened up about that weakness and talked through their perceptions. From that we made some inroads into building a relationship with the jurors. They understood that they could look to us for the answers in the case, and they could trust us to be honest about the evidence.
The second thing we learned was that having the jury consultant is a huge help but you can get past the benefit of that expertise by taking more preparation time for voir dire. Given my choices, I would always enlist the aid of a consultant, but even the best consultant cannot pick your jury. The lawyer is ultimately going to have to make the tough call about who should stay and who should go. The consultant I use always asks me what ONE question I would ask if I could only ask one. From that one question we need to be able to expose our concern to the jury and get them talking about how they feel.
Getting ready for trial? Worried about picking that jury? Get a copy of Gerry Spence’s book "Win Your Case" and read the chapter on jury selection. That is a great starting point for the TLC method that consistently works for us.