Modern Media, the Internet and Jury Duty — Is it Possible to Have a Fair Trial? Is it naive to think there's a chance for impartiality when picking jurors?
- Narrowing down a large pool of randomly selected potential jurors into the 12 that will make or break a case involves strategy and narrative-shaping far before a trial begins.
- Complete jury impartiality isn't assured, but opinions aside, every case ultimately comes down to the facts and evidence.
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In a world where people are motivated by the Internet to buy everything from candles to cookware and fall victim to watching viral videos for hours on a loop, is it naive to think there's a chance for impartiality when picking jurors?
An impartial jury relies on excluding jurors with previous knowledge or opinions of a case. With over 65% of the world's population having access to the Internet, it's a challenge to say the least.
The influence of the media in high-profile cases
Jury impartiality dates back to the early 1800s when the trial judge in Aaron Burr's case called for jurors to listen to testimony with open minds and be questioned carefully before being accepted as jurors. Since the modes of communication and information sharing were significantly limited compared to what's available today, impartiality was easier to come by. Fast forward a couple hundred years, and it's difficult to think any potential jurors are coming in fresh to a case without preconceived notions.
The subject of jury impartiality was a hot topic during the 2021 Derek Chauvin trial. When the former Minneapolis police officer was charged with murdering George Floyd, it was nearly impossible to find a jury pool who hadn't seen or heard the story on the news. If not privy to the original incident, there was no avoiding the aftermath that arose as a result, particularly in the area where the trial was being held.
It'd be hard for any juror not to have some feelings and opinions one way or another when they would be limited to listening only to instructions and testimony as presented in court. Jury selection in this case was reminiscent of other high-profile cases, such as O.J. Simpson's and George Zimmerman's trials. And, most recently, choosing a jury for the Donald Trump classified documents case faces similar challenges in finding 12 jurors who can leave their opinions — good or bad — at the door regarding the former president.
Not only has Trump been a largely public presence but a polarizing one as well. There is typically no gray area when it comes to feelings about his character, a point that weighs heavily in the minds of Americans. The legal process of voir dire allows attorneys to examine potential jurors and exclude any that may be influenced past the point of impartiality.
An attempt to preserve impartiality
High-profile cases often require a lengthy questionnaire and in-person oral questioning to determine which jurors are most fit to withhold prejudice. Other tactics used to find impartiality include:
Sometimes, trials are delayed to outlive the current wave of publicity. Once the media no longer brings their reports front and center, it allows the general public to move on from the heat of the debate and be in a place more willing to listen to the evidence presented.
In the case of Derek Chauvin, there was an attempt to move the trial to a different community that was less influenced by the publicity surrounding the case. However, it was ultimately decided that a trial is to include a "jury of your peers." Thus, the proceedings were kept local as outlined by the law's original intention.
Though jurors are always advised to disregard any outside information they've heard or seen about the case as they observe in court, it's difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. Once a person has heard, read, or seen information regarding case details, it's nearly impossible to remove those from memory, much less form opinions or make decisions without them.
Judges can decide to close court doors to the press to diminish pretrial publicity and influence among potential jurors. However, beyond taking jurors' access to phones, computers and the outside world altogether, there's no way for judges to fully limit anyone's access to information, whether or not that information is accurate or pertinent to the case.
Attorneys put to the test before the trial even begins
People may hide true opinions and political views in an effort to sit on the jury and convince their peers to rule in their own favor. Despite the expectations, instructions and oaths jurors take, people still may have their minds made up before the trial even begins, and once placed on a jury, it might be hard to undo it.
In addition to legal proceedings, there's a sociological element to every trial, sometimes even a psychological one. Narrowing down a large pool of randomly selected potential jurors into the 12 that will make or break a case involves strategy and narrative-shaping far before a trial begins. When juries can evaluate and rely on the facts presented in court as their only means to make a decision, which is what they're instructed to do, it should be easy to remain impartial.
But, some walk a fine line between fact and fiction, even unknowingly. And, while all cases don't garner a strong public opinion, attorneys are tasked to ensure it stays that way. Complete jury impartiality isn't assured, but opinions aside, every case ultimately comes down to the facts and evidence.