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Leonardo Angiulo: What You Need to Know as a Potential Juror

Monday, October 22, 2012

 

Leonardo Angiulo, GoLocalWorcester Legal Expert

You may or may not know that a criminal case from Suffolk County has been brought to the Worcester County Courthouse to find a jury pool. Please note, jury pools are not for swimming. The term refers to the group of people from which parties to an action select who will sit and decide a case. In order to understand why a Suffolk County case is using Worcester County jurors you first need a little background of the issues.

Now, in it's purest form, the idea is that people of the county in which a case is filed are the ones who should decide the outcome. That is the Commonwealth's definition of a jury of our peers as required by the Constitution. The statutory outline for jury service is contained within Massachusetts General Laws chapter 234A found here and establishes the framework by which the courts select it's jurors. Some basic principles in the law include that no one can be disqualified for jury service for reasons such as race, religion, occupation, economic status or gender. Eligibility for service is defined by section 4 of chapter 234A, found here, to be any United States citizen residing in the county over 18 years of age whether they are registered to vote or not. There are few exemptions to this rule, but for the most part everyone meeting this definition is qualified for service. 

But the old rule that just because you can doesn't mean you should applies here. No matter who may be qualified by law to serve, there is also a fundamental requirement that people who sit on a jury be impartial. That is a right guaranteed by Article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and the Sixth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. To be impartial can be defined as being unbiased in any way, to any side, for any reason. 

Finding unbiased, unprejudiced and otherwise impartial jurors is very important. For that reason, attorneys go through great pains to evaluate the group of people who have been summonsed for jury service. This process is known as voir dire and Massachusetts courts provide attorneys two sources of information about individual jurors during the selection process:  a)  the confidential questionnaire required by section 22 of chapter 234A found here and b) individual voir dire that may be conducted by the court pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws chapter 234 section 28 found here. 

It's important for us to acknowledge that some criminal cases evoke strong emotional reactions from people. Either some experience in a person's past or their moral position may prevent them being able to look at the facts of a case impartially simply because of it's nature. This can create a bias for the defendant, or the Commonwealth, and that person is free to live their life that way. They should not, however, be permitted to sit as a juror on that case. By evaluating answers to the questionnaire, and getting specific answers during individual voir dire, both sides to a case get the chance to make sure that the people in the jury box will render the true and just verdict required by our law.

Let's return to the issue of a Suffolk County case using Worcester County Jurors. Sometimes, things happen that result in extensive media coverage. And, when there is media coverage public figures begin to comment on the subject. At that point, an event becomes the topic of conversation in living rooms and restaurants. In such a case, people's opinions begin to form about what happened and who is responsible.

The question in this type of case is whether the pretrial publicity has created so great a prejudice against the defendant that it is impossible to obtain an impartial jury from the county where the case arises out of. When this occurs, the trial judge can order a change in venue, pursuant to Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure 37(b)(1), to ensure that jurors will be unbiased and the trial will be fair. When a change in venue occurs, the jury pool is made up of people from this new county and eventually from that pool the actual jury will be selected. 

Let's be clear, it may take longer and it may cost more to build a jury pool this way but the drafters of our Constitutions never put a price tag on liberty and neither should we. In addition, let's recognize that any time a case is so sensational that a change of venue is allowed it's likely to be a long and involved trial with as many as several weeks of testimony and evidence. We owe those people who give up their time a debt of gratitude because it is their service that makes our system of justice one of the greatest in the world. 

 

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