What I Learned from Jury Duty About Voir Dire

This is the first in a four-part series (part II, part III, part IV) of CEB blog posts by guest-blogger and attorney Tim Hallahan.

Earlier this year I sat as a juror on a five-week murder trial.  It was a dream-come-true opportunity for a trial-skills teacher like myself to see the process from the jury’s eyes.  A month after the trial, we jurors met for dinner to discuss the experience.  Here are a few lessons I learned from debriefing my fellow jurors and from my own experience as Juror #101.

  • Respect and facilitate the jury’s role in the process. The court system has made significant strides in “the care and feeding of jurors.”  Everyone from jury assembly room staff to judge and courtroom staff was patient, pleasant, and respectful from day one. 
  • Let jurors know what to expect. Key to the process was letting us know in advance exactly what to expect: how the trial would proceed, what we were to do, how long it would take, what days off to expect, and so on. A little advance knowledge does much to alleviate anxiety.  The DA, understanding our role as ally in the decision-making process, saw his job as that of teacher more than advocate.  He communicated this to us by presenting and explaining the evidence clearly and thoroughly.  On the other hand, the defense attorney seemed to have no purpose other than wanting to be our friend.  We all liked him, but by the end the consensus was that much of what he did was pointless.
  • Use a jury questionnaire. After a brief introduction, Judge Dorado gave us questionnaires to fill out, then asked us to come back two days later for voir dire.  The questionnaires were an effective way to discover relevant biases and decision-making ability.  The judge and one of the lawyers efficiently used the questionnaire answers during voir dire to probe crucial areas.  It would have been tedious and time-consuming to have 80 or so jurors describe their work, family, opinions, and experiences—and embarrassing for potential jurors to have to reveal sensitive information in open court.
  • Let Judge Probe Sensitive Areas. If you have a good judge like Judge Dorado, let him do the heavy lifting of probing sensitive personal experiences and dispelling common myths—e.g., that the lawyers will be hiding important information through technicalities, that the defendant must be guilty if he doesn’t testify.
  • Use voir dire to get information. Spend your limited time with your jurors by asking open-ended questions to uncover biases and determine what kind of decision makers they will be.   In my case, the DA did just that.  The defense attorney, however, asked random questions designed either to educate us or befriend us.  For example, his only question to me was: “If I allow you to sit on this jury, will I be able to get my MCLE credits?”  We jurors are not stupid.  If one lawyer uses voir dire to do what the judge tells us it’s for—to gain information—and the other doesn’t, you can guess who will win that credibility battle.

For more on conducting effective voir dire, see California Trial Practice: Civil Procedure During Trial §8.46 (3d ed Cal CEB 1995). Also, check out our blog post on picking a jury.

Stay tuned for the rest of this series on the CEB blog!

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