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Brett Emison
Brett Emison
Attorney • (800) 397-4910

The Right to an Impartial Jury

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The right to jury trial is preserved by the 7th Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Here, in Missouri, the right to a jury trial is to “remain inviolate” (Art. 1, sec. 22(a)].

Our jury trial system is based on the fundamental principle that trial should be tried by an impartial jury – one that will decide the outcome based only on the evidence at trial.  Neither party should start out the trial a little bit ahead or a little bit behind.  As the trial starts, the scales of justice must start out empty and evenly balanced.

“The right to unbiased and unprejudiced jurors is an inseparable and inalienable part of the right to a trial by jury guaranteed by the Constitution.  A state of mind in a juror evincing bias to either party is a ground for challenge.”  Kendall v. Prudential Ins. Co., 327 S.W.2d 174, 177 (Mo. banc 1959).  “The constitutional right of every citizen to a trial by jury to be meaningful contemplates a fair and impartial jury.  The jury should consist of twelve impartial, qualified jurors.”  Beggs v. Universal C.I.T. Credit Corp., 387 S.W.2d 499, 503 (Mo. banc 1965).

The issue of impartial jurors came to light nationally in the last several weeks during jury selection in the case of a father whose son died after being left in a hot car.  In that case, by way of background, a 22-month-old boy died after being left in a hot car by his father.  A grand jury indicted the father on charges of murder.  The primary issue in the trial is whether the child’s death was a tragic accident or an intentional murder.

The purpose of jury selection to identify bias or prejudice on the part of potential jurors.  In Missouri, a potential juror must be stricken for cause if (1) the person “has formed or expressed an opinion” concerning the case or any material fact at issue or (2) the person’s “opinions or beliefs preclude them from following the law” governing the case.  Trial courts in Missouri are further advised to exclude prospective jurors for any potential bias.

In the “hot car” case in Georgia, every potential juror had heard about the well-publicized case.  Many of those potential jurors had formed opinions about the facts before they were called to service.   The issue was how to determine whether or not the jurors were truly impartial.

Often times, one of the parties might try to “rehabilitate” a potential juror they view as favorable by asking if the juror could set aside his or her feelings or opinions about the case.  Some jurors might be asked if they could follow the court’s instructions in the case despite the juror’s feelings or opinions.  This is precisely what happened with numerous jurors in the Georgia case.

In one example, a juror expressed emphatic opinions about the case on an official questionnaire before jury selection began, but changed her opinions markedly during the jury selection process.

[T]he jury questionnaire asked whether juror 31 was interested in serving on this case.

“She wrote ‘no because I know he is guilty.  K-N-O-W – I know he is guilty,'” said Maddox Kilgore, a defense attorney reading from her questionnaire.  The juror was questioned Tuesday.

Prosecutors liked juror 31.  [The defense] attorney wanted to dismiss the juror – even though the juror said emphatically in court under questioning that she could hear the evidence objectively.”

Hot-car dad’s case jurors’ opinions confound court [Doug Richards via USA Today]

What prosecutor wouldn’t “like” a juror who had written that she knew the defendant was guilty?  The prosecutor tried to rehabilitate the juror by asking if he could hear the evidence objectively.  He probably asked the juror if she could be “fair.”

And what juror would answer that they could not be “fair”?  Or would not follow the court’s instructions?

In Missouri, juror 31 would be disqualified from serving (just as she seemingly was disqualified in the Georgia case), even after saying she could be “fair”.

A potential juror may not judge his or her own qualification to serve.  It is the trial court’s duty to consider the answers of the potential juror and make an independent evaluation of the juror’s qualifications.  The judge must consider the facts detailed by the potential juror and may not accept the juror’s own assessment that she could be unbiased or “fair”.

Importantly, the court must grant a cause for challenge if there is any doubt about the juror’s impartiality.

“If the answers of prospective jurors to questions posed by counsel or the court raise a doubt as to their ability to be fair, such doubt is to be resolved by removing them from the panel.”  State v. Hamlett, 756 S.W.2d 197, 199 (Mo. App. 1988).

Ultimately, the trial court in Georgia determined that it could not seat an impartial jury.  The court granted a change in venue to transfer the case to another area of the state where the case had received less publicity.

Our founders offered high praise for the jury system:

I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.
– Thomas Jefferson

In suits at common law, trial by jury in civil cases is as essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature.
– James Madison

The civil jury is a valuable safeguard to liberty.
– Alexander Hamilton

Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty.  Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.
– John Adams

Jurors safeguard liberty.  They hear evidence and determine if a criminal defendant will serve time or walk free or, in some cases, whether the defendant will live or die.  They determine if a driver caused a crash or did not.  They determine if a quadriplegic will receive compensation for his injuries.  They determine if the government has violated constitutional rights.  They make these determinations every day.

But the jury system works only if those serving as jurors are impartial – willing to judge the case on the facts and the law.

© Copyright 2016 Brett A. Emison

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