Who should decide the fate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 21-year-old behind the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing? The same question can be asked in Colorado, where James Holmes, the troubled gunman who opened fire on a crowded Colorado movie theater in 2012, awaits trial. In both cases, the search for jurors has begun.
The 6th Amendment guarantees these men the right to an impartial jury—one that is without pre-existing knowledge of the case or biases against the defendant, and will come to a decision based only on the information presented during trial. Both the Tsarnaev and Holmes cases are high-profile ones. They received widespread media attention, raising questions about court’s ability to deliver an impartial jury. But the truth is, mass media is just the latest challenge courts have faced in an ongoing quest for impartial jurors.
While jury selection is arguably the most important aspect of any trial, the process has never been scientific. Lawyers and judges have always relied on intuition to weed out jurors with explicit biases—the ones people readily admit to having—and implicit ones, the perceptions and stereotypes that reside in our subconscious.
To combat bias, courts rely on several techniques: change of venue, continuance, and detailed instructions for the jury. But the most important technique is the voir dire process, whereby judges and lawyers question potential jurors about both their knowledge of the case and their beliefs or experiences that might cause them to be biased. This system was doomed from the beginning, because lawyers themselves don’t really want impartial jurors; they want jurors that will find in favor of their client. A difficult case can, after all, be won with a sympathetic jury.
Picture: Ammodramus (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons