Jury Trials in Criminal Cases: Some Thoughts

Like me here in Atlanta, criminal defense lawyers around the country are probably reading about the federal criminal trial involving Paul Manafort (guy with a great first name), the former Campaign Chairman in the last Presidential election.  And like me, lawyers and laypersons alike are wondering about the impact of the evidence and witnesses on the jury.  This made me reflect on what I have learned after trying around 100 criminal jury trials in both federal and state courts during my career.

To begin with, there is a huge difference depending on whether the criminal case is in state court or in the federal arena.  State cases are generally creatures of the county in which the crime happened.  For the most part (unless a statewide agency such as the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, or “MFCU”, is involved) the case is brought by the county’s District Attorney.  As a general rule, trials have to be in the county where the crime happened.  The jurors only come from that single county, whether it is a huge place like Fulton or Dekalb, or a small rural county far from a large city.  This means that in the smaller counties the jurors often know of or have heard something about either the crime, the Defendant, or some of the attorneys. Federal criminal cases, on the other hand, are handled by “Districts.”  Georgia has three separate federal judicial Districts, Northern, Middle and Southern.  Atlanta is in the Northern District, and there are then four “Divisions”: Gainesville, Rome, Atlanta and Newnan.  Jurors come from the counties in each Division, but that can mean jurors in DeKalb will sit with jurors from Rockdale all on an Atlanta Division case in the Northern District.  The bottom line is that federal jurors came from a wider array of locations and backgrounds.

Another distinction is the method used for selecting jurors.  We lawyers call this “voir dire“, which are supposedly old English words but others claim the expression comes from Latin. Essentially, voir dire is a process by which both sides get to question prospective jurors to see if one side wants to exclude that person from sitting on the jury.  Depending on the jurisdiction, each side gets a certain number of “strikes”, meaning that they can knock that number of people out of consideration for being on the jury.  The questioning involved in voir dire in a state criminal trial is much different than what happens in federal court.  State judges tend to let the lawyers have free reign, asking a wide variety of questions of each individual juror who is up for consideration.  Federal court is much more restricted, and sometimes the Judges won’t let the lawyer ask any questions at all, the Judge will handle all the juror questioning.  As a result, federal jury selection often happens in a matter of hours, while the state counterpart often takes days.

Another thing to remember is that the lawyers are not really “picking” a jury.  Remember, they have a certain number of “strikes” after which the next 12 available people are on the jury.  The process of striking people until both sides are down to 12 people for whom neither side had a huge problem basically means that the lawyers are really choosing the 12 least objectionable individuals for a jury.

What do lawyers consider when striking possible jurors? That is a huge subject, but for the most part the lawyer is trying to get rid of a juror whose life experiences or opinions show that he or she would be likely to vote for the opposing side in the case.  The other side’s attorney is doing just the opposite, so, as just mentioned, the jury ends up with 12 rather average folks that neither side has a huge objection to serving on the jury.

After almost 100 trials, I still think that jurors all try to do their job as best as they can.  However, people are fallible, and sometimes they get it wrong.  Still, it is probably the best system out there.