Getting Picked for Jury Duty

After trying dozens of jury trials as both a prosecutor and defense lawyer, I’ve seen almost everything about juries and getting selected for jury duty.  What will happen if you’re picked for a jury?

We all know that every accused person has a right to a jury trial.  It comes to us in America from centuries of English common law and our constitution.   When a person is on trial for a capital offense and life in prison or the death penalty can result from the jury’s decision, selecting the people who serve on the jury becomes critical.

If a person is charged with a felony, they have a right to a jury of twelve people.  All twelve have to agree unanimously that a defendant is guilty before they can be found guilty.  Typically, at the beginning of a trial about twenty people will be brought into the courtroom for selection of the final twelve.  They are originally recruited in a variety of ways: voter records, driver’s licenses, addresses, etc. in an effort to get an accurate cross-section of the community.  When I first started tying cases in Minnesota, the African American population was small.  As a result, when I defended black clients, the juries were often white, suburban people.   I don’t think you can immediately assume they were biased against a black defendant, but it sure made the client nervous.  As our constitution reads, each of us has a right to a “jury of our peers.”

Today, the judiciary makes significant efforts to include all socio-economic and racial groups in the jury pool for selection.  It’s not perfect but is better than years ago.

Once the trial starts, if it’s a murder case, the prospective jurors are questioned one at a time without the other potential jurors present.  In any other felony, twelve people are initially called out of the large group, seated in the jury box, and questioned one after another.

Each lawyer has the opportunity to ask their own questions.  Both prosecutor and defense lawyer ask their questions of one juror at a time.  Either lawyer has a number of automatic “strikes” which mean they can kick-out a prospective  juror without stating a reason why.  They can both “challenge” any juror for “cause.”   The lawyer must state the reason out loud why he thinks the juror would not be fair.  It could be because they were a victim of a similar crime as the one being tried, they’ve expressed something that shows they’re already biased against one side or the other, or something in their background makes them biased.  If the judge agrees, the juror is released.  If the judge doesn’t agree, the lawyer must then use a “strike” or be stuck with a disgruntled juror that he tried to kick-off.

Can you get out of jury duty?

Should you get out of jury duty?  This is a pet peeve of mine!!  So often, I hear people complain that government doesn’t work anymore and that each of us can’t change anything.  But when offered the opportunity to serve in the “government”–that is, the judiciary as a juror, so many people try to get out of it.  Why don’t they understand that by serving, they are playing a critical, important role in the government???

Let me know what you think.


About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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