I. Inalienable Rights
It’s pretty hard to imagine a more important right than to have a fair jury in a criminal case. Criminal defense lawyers who have extensive jury experience are the best first, early warning system to protect your constitutional jury rights in almost every single criminal case.
In one particularly tough case, which happened to involve a homicide, there’s also a good showcase for three important jury questions: questions that ultimately had to be settled in front of the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Quoting John Adams (1774), who said:
"Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty."
II. The right to be present…
...relates very much to the idea that you’re able to also ‘confront’ witnesses or other participants in the trial. Talking with a criminal defense lawyer is best at every single stage of an investigation, arrest, and any possible subsequent discussions that may lead to a trial. This particular case revealed one of the problems with court procedures, amounting to a defendant not being “technically present.” The jury pool members in this case actually had what are called private, sidebar conferences with the trial court judge. While this seems to be very significant, and the criminal defense lawyer properly raised it on appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, the Supreme Court justices had an interesting response: they simply concluded that since the trial hadn’t actually started, there was no constitutional error. While the Supreme Court did explain why the sidebar conference was held, and was (worse) unrecorded, it remains a troubling issue. Because the right to confront or be present in the entire capital trial is so important, it can never be waived, including by any errors at trial. Interestingly, the justices acknowledged a precedent that it “was error [Emphasis Added] for the trial court to exclude the defendant, counsel, and the court reporter from his private communications.” Creating this kind of distinction, unfortunately, may reveal a certain predisposition about interpreting constitutional rights. While in this case it did not work in the defendant’s favor, at least the issue has been raised and hopefully will help change similar trial practices in the future.
III. Views on capital punishment…
… are one of the most important issues in picking an impartial jury. The juror pool’s views on capital punishment elicit some of the widest perspectives in American society. This diversity sometimes makes it difficult to get an accurate view as to what North Carolinians really think about the death penalty. One study in 2019 noted that North Carolina “has long been considered a solidly pro death penalty state.” The same study, however, argued that North Carolina voters also believe the death penalty is “error and prone and racially biased.”
Following a controversial capital trial in Wake County, a poll was made of 501 voters in North Carolina. This poll reflected changing realities on the ground, as well. There has been only one NC death row execution in the last five years. Regardless of this decline in this State’s executions, criminal defense lawyers are almost always on the front line of making sure that all penalty provisions in North Carolina are fairly administered. As an example of pro-con diversity in North Carolina, there were four prospective jurors in this case, excused for cause because of their anti-capital punishment views. Again, reflecting the diversity of opinion about capital punishment, of these four, three of them were absolutely, unchangeably opposed to the death penalty. It was the fourth person that raised particularly troubling constitutional issues, aggressively addressed by the defendant’s criminal defense lawyer. When asked by the state prosecutor whether or not the guilty verdict should include the death penalty, the answer was “yes and no.” When asked again, the juror again repeated “yes and no.”
Seemingly somewhat exasperated, the district attorney then asked: “OK. So in part you have an opinion about what punishment has to be imposed, and in part you do not have an opinion; is that what you were saying?”
Yet, when asked if the juror could set that opinion aside (if it can be called an opinion, that is) the prospective juror indicated that he could do so. Nevertheless, the state was granted a dismissal of the juror for cause…that is, opposing the death penalty. The criminal defense lawyer was not successful on this point: because the death penalty was not imposed in the case, the disqualification of this juror was seen as non-prejudicial.
IV. Eliminating bias or disinterest by a prospective juror…
… can be one of the hardest challenges in getting a fair jury. It’s never a certainty as to who will ask the key question that may expose bias or disinterest by a prospective juror. Part of the problem in the interview process is that once a possible juror, seen as likely to be more friendly to one side than the other, some questions are not going to tactically asked to reveal possible juror bias.
It happens so often that there are even Memes and Facebook pages on “getting out” of jury duty. When it comes to the reality of getting a fair trial of peers, however, it’s no laughing matter. A criminal defense lawyer will work tirelessly to make sure that the jury pool adequately represents the best opportunity for a client’s fair trial. The key question in this case was whether any members of the jury pool had “pressing personal or business engagements” that might interfere with serving. It revealed that judges are human too. Apparently irritated by an unwilling juror, who was starting nursing school, the judge decided that the non-juror was going to have to “sit here through the trial the case, but I’m not going to require you to sit on this case. So, when the other jurors are excused, you are to remain in the court room… I want you to sit on the front row, sir, so you can hear what’s going on.” The argument by the criminal defense lawyer was that this treatment of a possible juror would have a necessarily “chilling” effect on other jurors, who might in fact be distracted or disinterested in the trial. While seemingly agreeing with the thrust of the argument, the Supreme Court justices believed that it was too speculative to grant as a reversible error.
Getting the facts of a case in front of an impartial jury are crucial to a fair system. The complexity of cases such as this require the most experienced of criminal defense lawyers. One interesting aspect of the demonstrable success of these experienced criminal defense lawyers is shown in changing public opinion regarding the use of the death penalty. For the first time in North Carolina history, more voters favor maximum sentences of life without parole then applying the death penalty. If you, a family member or a loved one have questions about any arrest, or involving related claims or your legal rights or hearings, including (but not only) jury issues, please contact us. You will speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer, who can best answer your questions about how your rights can be protected. There is never a fee for this initial consultation.