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What is Voir Dire?

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY— Currently, a jury is being selected in Lee County for the felony public corruption trial of Speaker Mike Hubbard. Jury selection is commonly referred to as “striking a jury” because both the prosecution and the defense take turns arguing challenges for cause to disqualify certain potential juror. In “legalese” it is known as a voir dire from the French “to see, to speak,” and is pronounced (vwahr [with a near-silent “r”] deer).

In Lee County, approximately 100 residents were summoned for jury duty, and given a questionnaire to complete before the voir dire. From that pool, 12 jurors, and as many as 4 alternates will be selected.

According to veteran Gadsden-based defense attorney Eddy Cunningham, the questions are designed to enable the judge and the attorneys to glean understanding of the potential jurors’ backgrounds, which may include personal experiences with the court, or their family members’ experiences on issues that may be related to the case, or effect their opinion on the case.

“The questionnaires are the first step toward making sure the juror can be fair and impartial,” said Cunningham. He says finding if members of the jury people are friends or associate with the defendant or lawyers. “As a defense attorney I am always looking for any jurors who have been defendants or their family members have been a defendant which might cause them to have a deep seated prejudice against prosecutors,” Cunningham said. “They might not say they have a prejudice and that might be true but just being on the jury will make the prosecution have to work a little harder.”

Cunningham said both sides are looking for jurors who have not made up their minds ahead of time. “That will be a difficult thing to do in the Hubbard case because he is a politician from Lee County.”

It is widely believed that a good voir dire is an opportunity to win the case before it starts. “Trial lawyers have three opportunities during a trial to speak directly to the strangers who will decide their clients’ fate: voir dire, opening, and closing,” according to attorney Kevin P. McCoy. “For everything else in between, a lawyer takes a back seat to the witnesses and the evidence. Studies indicate that jurors start reaching conclusions well before they hear all the evidence in cases. This means that winning voir dire is crucial to winning trials.”

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According to the American Prosecutors Research Institute, during void dire, the prosecutor’s goal should be to “inform the venire (the panel of prospective jurors) of the charges, establish your theme, build a rapport with the individuals, and to identify venire who are (1) biased or prejudiced against the police, you or your office, the case or the victim; and/or (2) sympathetic or empathic toward the defendant.”

“If they end up striking the jury in Lee County from 100 people, then you’ll ultimately end up with 12 and two or four alternates in this case. That would be 86 people taken off the jury. That means the State and the defense will each take 43 people off the jury, alternating back and forth,” said Cunningham. “No one knows they are being struck until the judge announces the 12 jurors and the alternates who will serve.”

Cunningham says that jury selection is crucial for both sides, and can make or break a criminal case like Hubbard’s.

Trial Judge Jacob Walker, III, says opening statements will began on May 24 or 25.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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