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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jury Selection Tricky Guessing Game in MA criminal trials

On Saturday, April 25, I participated in a training session for Massachusetts Bar Advocates, sponsored by the Middlesex Defense Attorneys, Inc. First, let me thank Maryellen Cuthbert for the invitation and for organizing a very interesting program. Diane Levesque and I were the trial consultants charged with introducing the assembled throng to the concepts behind effective supplemental juror questionnaires and attorney conducted voir dire.

The first thing to note is how far in the Dark Ages is Massachusetts when it comes to adopting "best practices" in jury selection. I used the phrase "repressed Puritans" during my remarks, which might not have sat well with everyone. There is just no getting around that Massachusetts is a VERY conservative legal culture.

I put up a slide identifying several dimensions of jury selection procedures, with one column for the "restrictive procedure" and one column for the "expansive procedure." Massachusetts fell in the "restrictive" category FOR EVERY SINGLE DIMENSION. So, the bad news is that jury selection in Massachusetts is about as big a low-information crap shoot as there is going. The good news is that we have nowhere to go but up!

There were approximately 110 attorneys in attendance. I asked how many of them had ever used a trial consultant in any of their cases. (Remember now that most of these folks also handle civil cases). NOT A SINGLE HAND WENT UP. That's right. No one had ever used a trial consultant. So much for the quote, attributed to an attorney in Atlanta more than 10 years ago, that to go to trial without a jury consultant would "border on legal malpractice."

Many of the attorneys, some of whom had decades of trial experience, were very pessimistic about the willingness of Massachusetts judges to open up jury selection, at all. Maryellen had warned me to expect this response. She believes -- rightly so, I think -- that the criminal defense bar must make a concerted effort to change the status quo. The mindsets of Massachusetts judges will only begin to change if all the Bar Advocates start asking for the same procedural accommodations, and offering the same arguments in favor of those accommodations. So, one of my charges was to provide for the attendees a list of advantages to using supplemental juror questionnaires and attorney-conducted voir dire. This list is not targeted at the lawyers alone, but also at the judges whom they must convince to "loosen things up." That is, I tried to provide strategic, practical and legal arguments for employing less restrictive procedures.

To be fair, I have been at several local events at which judges have expressed a willingness to allow attorney conducted voir dire, but they always lament that no one ever asks for it! Hopefully, armed with some of the information and advice Diane and I offered on Saturday, some of these attorneys will get more involved in jury selection.

I have attached my presentation slides below. For articles I have written on supplemental juror questionnaires and voir dire, please follow these links. SJQ article. Voir dire article.

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