Tsarnaev: Death penalty cases are won or lost during jury selection

Monday, December 29, 2014

Good evening:

Most death penalty lawyers will tell you that a death penalty case is won (i.e., LWOP) or lost (i.e., death sentence) during jury selection. That is because we have seen and done it all and have generally mastered the art of trying cases so that we know to a reasonable certainty whether the jury will convict or acquit the client.

Today we are going to learn about and discuss jury selection in a federal death penalty trial. As you will soon discover, jury selection is more aptly described as deselection. Each side attempts to get rid of the prospective jurors they do not want by challenging them for cause or by peremptory challenge.

1) Challenge for Cause: No limit to the number of challenges, but you have to satisfy the judge that the prospective juror whom you challenge cannot fairly and impartially try the case or follow the court’s instructions. Your challenge will be denied, if you fail to convince the judge.

2) Peremptory Challenge: Each side gets 20 challenges. You don’t have to give a reason to support your challenge, but you cannot use your challenges to exclude prospective jurors solely on the basis of race, gender or religion. For example, the prosecution cannot use peremptory challenges to exclude Muslims. They would have to genuinely have other reasons or the challenge would be denied. The defense has a pending motion to increase the number of peremptory challenges to 30 per side because of extensive pretrial publicity. The government opposes the motion and it will likely be denied since the rule is quite specific about 20.

Jurors will be questioned in three ways. First, they will be asked to fill out a questionnaire. Then they will questioned together as a group and thereafter individually, depending on their answers to some of the questions on the questionnaire or during group voir dire. BTW, voir dire means to question. Attorney voir dire occurs when the lawyer do the questioning.

1,000 prospective jurors have been summoned in the Tsarnaev case. The goal is to seat a jury of 12, plus alternates who will well and truly try the case according to the instructions given by the court.

The first task in the selection process is to go through the questionnaires and excuse people who cannot serve because of the length of the trial, economic hardship, poor health, bias (related to or know victims, witnesses, lawyers or court personnel), prepaid vacations, etc. This usually reduces the pool of prospective jurors by about 50% or more.

Since this is a highly publicized death penalty case, the two major areas of inquiry during voir dire will be: (1) effect of pretrial publicity on ability to fairly and impartially try the case based only on the evidence introduced in court and, assuming the defendant is found guilty, (2) effect of opinions about the death penalty on a juror’s ability to follow the jury instructions that require weighing the aggravating evidence and mitigating evidence in deciding whether to sentence the defendant to death or to LWOP. Jurors will be questioned individually out of the presence of the others to avoid influencing them with their responses regarding these topics and possibly religious beliefs, since Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is allegedly a Muslim jihadist.

More specifically,

1) Pretrial publicity: The test is not whether someone has heard or read about the case. The test is whether they have formed an opinion about the guilt or innocence of the accused such that they would not be able to fairly and impartially try the case. They will be excused for cause, if the answer is “Yes.” If the answer is, “No” they will be questioned individually out of the presence of the others for more information to challenge or pass the juror for cause on the subject of pretrial publicity. If a challenge for cause is denied, the party asserting the challenge likely will use a peremptory challenge later on to get rid of that person.

2) Opinions about the death penalty: Jurors are told that they have to be questioned regarding their opinions about the death penalty before the trial starts because there will not be an opportunity to question them later, if the defendant is convicted. Therefore, they are told to assume guilt when they are questioned. Invariably, a majority of the time spent selecting a jury involves the death qualification process. The test is whether the prospective juror could weigh the aggravating and mitigating evidence and render a verdict according to the jury instructions. Anyone who would automatically vote for the death penalty, if the defendant is convicted as charged, will be excused for cause, Same is true for anyone who would automatically vote for LWOP because they are opposed to the death penalty. This is called death qualifying a jury and it inevitably produces conviction prone jurors because so-called scrupled jurors (who oppose the death penalty) are more likely to vote not guilty than guilty. This feature is another major reason why it’s so difficult to win a death penalty trial.

The goal will be to get a panel of probably 75 or more people who have been passed for cause by both sides. The size of the panel has to be large enough so that there will be enough people left to seat a jury of 12, plus the alternates. If each side uses its full complement of 20 peremptory challenges, that would reduce the panel by 40 people, and possibly a few more, if one side or the other successfully challenges the other side’s improper use of a peremptory challenge to get rid of people based solely on race, gender or religion. Each side also gets a peremptory challenge to assert for each alternate.

It’s OK to end up with a few too many. It’s not OK to end up without enough because then you have to bring in another group of people to question.

One of the extremely bizarre aspects of the death qualification process is the effort by defense counsel to save scrupled jurors from being excused for cause by getting them to admit that they could follow the instructions and impose the death penalty despite their opposition to it, if the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances. Similarly, prosecutors befuddle jurors who would automatically vote for the death penalty by attempting to get them to admit that they could vote LWOP despite their support for the death penalty, if the mitigating circumstances outweighed the aggravating circumstances.In either case, the object is to force the opposing counsel to use one of their precious silver bullets (i.e., peremptory challenges). The hope is they will run out of ammo before you do and you’ll get some scrupled jurors on the jury.

That is more likely to happen in Massachusetts where a majority of the voters are against the death penalty than would be the case in Texas or Florida where you would be lucky to find a scrupled juror in a group of 1,000 people.

Last but not least, both sides will be on the lookout for possible ‘stealth jurors.’ They are agenda driven people who will lie to sneak on a jury and vote for a particular outcome, regardless of the evidence. This is called jury nullification when the stealth juror votes contrary to the evidence and the instructions. Both sides are likely to have support staff checking social media for potential stealth jurors.

It took 3-4 weeks for me to select a jury in every death penalty case that I tried. Then it took 6-9 months to try the cases.

Since federal court does not allow cameras or audio recordings in the courtroom, we will not be able to watch this fascinating process that is so critically important to the outcome of every trial.

And there you have it.

2 Responses to Tsarnaev: Death penalty cases are won or lost during jury selection

  1. Joseph says:

    I wish an exception could be made to allow the Tsaneav trial to be televised.

    I’m sure the major Boston TV stations and the national cable news channels would love to carry gavel-to-gavel coverage of this trial.

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