Voir dire, which means “to speak the truth” in French, also refers to the examination of prospective jurors to determine whether or not they are suitable for jury service. During this jury selection process, a judge may ask standard questions to excuse anyone deemed incapable of serving on a jury. Attorneys involved in the case may also question the jurors to identify any potential biases. If any such biases are suspected, the attorneys may request to remove the biased jurors or exercise a peremptory challenge to exclude those jurors from the trial.
However, some questions asked during this process are likely to create rather than reveal partiality within prospective jurors.
In State v. Leo T. Little, Jr. , the Defendant sought to challenge his convictions for aggravated assault and weapons offenses on the ground that voir dire questioning by the trial court of prospective jurors during jury selection deprived him of a fair trial.
Although the State was charging the Defendant with weapons-related offenses, law enforcement officers were unable to recover the weapon that the Defendant allegedly used in the charged offenses. Since the State anticipated their inability to offer a weapon as evidence at trial, they sought to inquire whether or not this lack of evidence would impact the jurors ability to serve.
The question posed to the prospective jurors read:
“The law does not require that the State recover a gun, even though the defendant has been charged with weapons-related offenses. If the State does not produce the physical firearm allegedly used in this case, will this affect your ability as a juror?”
The prospective jurors that indicated a reluctance to convict the Defendant without such evidence were excused via the State’s peremptory challenges. The case proceeded to trial and the jury convicted the Defendant of all charges.
The Defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court deprived him of a fair trial because the question asked to the prospective jurors suggested that they should convict him despite the State’s inability to present a weapon as evidence. The Appellate Division agreed with the Defendant that the voir dire questioning had inclined the prospective jurors to convict the Defendant notwithstanding the absence of the weapon and that the State’s dismissal of certain jurors may have resulted in a biased jury.
On May 27, 2021, the Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed this decision and reiterated the importance of ensuring that voir dire questions are presented in balanced and impartial terms. The Court found that the wording of the question in this case did not equitably present the evidentiary issue to prospective jurors because it only addressed the legal standard that assisted the State. Thus, the Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s finding that the Defendant was not afforded his right to an impartial jury and therefore he is entitled to a new trial.
Although the right to an impartial jury is embedded within the New Jersey State Constitution, that right is also guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The process of voir dire is intended to secure the right to an impartial jury by allowing courts and attorneys to eliminate biased jurors.
However, it is the obligation of a court to ensure that while inquiring about potential biases, no such biases are created.
If you or a loved one is about to partake in a criminal trial in Jersey City or the surrounding area, please do not hesitate to call our office for a free consultation.