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June 9, 2016
The court and attorneys on both sides face an extra challenge when picking a jury in Cobb County, Georgia for the Justin Ross Harris trial, a case that has had heavy publicity. Mr. Harris is on trial for murder, malice murder, and child cruelty for the death of his 22-month-old son who died in June 2014, after being left in a hot car for over seven hours while his father was at work. Prosecutors accuse Harris of sending lewd text messages, having online conversations, and conducting incriminating Internet searches. Prosecutors believe this is evidence shows Harris’s motive, which was to live a childfree life.
Police say, Harris admitted that he “forgot Cooper was in his car when he went to work.” Prosecutors allege that Harris was unhappy at work and in his marriage and that while at work he had been sending and receiving sexually explicit texts, including nude images, with six young women, one as young as 17 years old. Attorneys for Harris say Cooper’s death was a tragic accident.
This high profile case received extensive local and national media attention. Regardless, the American judicial system is based on defendants receiving a fair trial. One of the most important aspects of that is jury selection. The court is looking for jurors that will listen to the all of the evidence and the court’s instruction on the law before deciding whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Prosecutors and defense attorneys are looking for jurors that are partial to their respective cases.
Jury selection is used to try to determine whether potential jurors are capable of being on a specific jury. Before a jury is selected the court and the attorneys question jurors in an attempt to discover any biases, prejudices, predetermined opinions, or other characteristics that would make a person unfit to serve on the jury. One tool used as a starting point is the juror questionnaire, which is a series of questions that each juror answers. A copy of each juror’s questionnaire is given to the court, and counsel and is used to help determine what other questions they want to ask the individual jurors.
This is the juror questionnaire used in the Harris case. Some questions are about jurors’ personal background, while others delve into jurors’ personal experiences and opinions. No topic is really off limits as long as it could affect whether a person is able to sit on the jury.
Some of the questions asked in the Harris jury questionnaire were:
To determine how much potential jurors knew about that case before being called for jury duty, questions inquired about what jurors knew about the case and from what sources. Questions also addressed some sensitive topics that are likely to be brought up during trial, such social website use, online relationships and any experience with sexual addictions or pornography.
Answers to these questions help the court and the attorneys select the most well-suited jurors. The prosecutor asked that a potential juror be excused because he lied about his criminal history on the jury questionnaire. The questionnaire helped uncover that most potential jurors had some opinion about the case before hearing any evidence. Although, only those potential jurors who had made a definite decision on guilt prior to the trial starting where excluded from the jury pool.
Answers from jurors that indicate an even a slightly open mind are unlikely to result in the juror being excused. Answers that did not result in dismissal in the Harris case included:
“She indicated and agreed the defense would have to work, would have to work really hard to change her opinion; I think generally I’m a very fair person. As a parent of a young child I just really struggle to how something like this could happen.”
Sometimes odd answers on a juror questionnaire might cause an attorney to ask more. This was the case with one potential juror in particular. The potential juror was a single father of two who wrote that he has an “uncanny ability to detect lies.” The man elaborated, “Usually when I look into someone’s eyes I can tell if they are being untruthful.” He also disclosed his use of Internet pornography and when questioned further stated that he is single and his “porn use had not affected any of his relationships.”
In a high profile case with widespread media coverage it is even harder to find a large enough panel of fair and impartial jurors who can listen to the evidence and the law before making a decision on the defendant’s guilt or innocence. Juror questionnaires are a useful tool to help the court and attorneys learn as much as possible in a short amount of time about a potential jury pool. In the Harris case it helped to weed out the people who did not possess the ability to sit on the jury.