Voir Dire - Recent Cases and Some Thoughts

VOIR DIRE - RECENT CASES AND SOME THOUGHTS

By Robert C. Bonsib, Esq. and Megan E. Coleman, Esq.

Voir dire begins the criminal jury trial. The composition of the members chosen to serve on the jury may ultimately determine its receptivity to your position and your evidence. Judges vary in what each may permit as to the scope of voir dire. Different types of cases require thought regarding the case specific questions that should be asked of prospective jurors. What voir dire is permitted may be based on how well your proposed voir dire is crafted to the specifics of your particular case Having information regarding the potential bias or prejudice of a juror is often more than simply accepting a "yes" or "no" answer to a question.

In the end, as we all know, jury selection is often more a process of de-selection - getting rid of those prospective jurors that we least want - and not so much "choosing" the jurors we want.

This article touches on some of the issues raised in recent reported appellate cases and reviews some basic principles regarding the law of voir dire in Maryland. The cases discussed in this article discuss a minimum for voir dire and not necessarily "best practices." In considering these cases, it is important to remember that just because a question does not have to be asked does not mean that it cannot or should not be asked. As noted herein, the Court of Appeals has raised the possibility of a revision of Maryland's "limited" approach to voir dire and has indicated that it will refer the matter to the Rules Committee to determine if the use of voir dire should be approved, not just to ascertain whether there is a basis to challenge for cause, but also as a vehicle to assist in the intelligent exercise of preemptory challenges.

Practitioners may wish to suggest to judges who want to streamline and expedite the voir dire process and say to you - "I am not required to ask this question" - that such an approach may soon (whatever that means in Rules Committee time) be a "relic of the past" if the Rules Committee accepts the invitation of the Court of Appeals to revisit the issue of the purpose and scope of voir dire.

We all know the satisfied feeling we have when appearing in front of a judge who is willing to take the time to ensure that the panel of 12 has the best chance of being composed of citizens with an open mind and who bring their common sense to the jury box. We also know that feeling that justice is being given a second chair when the mood in the courtroom is to "get 12 in the box" as quickly as possible and move on.

A QUICK OVERVIEW

The United States Constitution provides that a defendant has a right to "an impartial jury." U.S. Const. Amend. VI; Md. Decl. of Rts. Art. 21. Voir dire "is critical to" implementing the right to an impartial jury. Washington, 425 Md. 306, 312 (2012).

Maryland employs a "limited voir dire" meaning that the sole recognized purpose of voir dire "is to ensure a fair and impartial jury by determining the existence of [specific] cause for disqualification" rather than, as in many other jurisdictions, facilitating "the intelligent exercise of peremptory challenges." Pearson v. State, 86 Md. 1232, 1235 (2014) (citing Washington at 312-313). As a result, the Court of Appeals has said that "a trial court need not ask a voir dire question that is 'not directed at a specific [cause] for disqualification [or is] merely 'fishing' for information to assist in the exercise of peremptory challenges[.]'" Pearson at 1235-36 (citing Washington at 315). In deciding whether to ask a proposed voir dire question, a trial court should weigh the expenditure of time and resources in the pursuit of the reason for the response to the proposed voir dire question against the likelihood that pursuing the reason for the response will reveal bias or partiality." Pearson at 1237 (citing Perry, 344 Md. at 220, 686 A.2d at 282).

It should be noted that because the Pearson Court resolved the case on other grounds, the Court declined to resolve the issue of whether Maryland should continue using limited voir dire or instead, whether it should allow voir dire to facilitate the intelligent use of peremptory challenges. Pearson, at 1244 n. 1. In an encouraging comment, the Court of Appeals said that it needed further information concerning whether it might move in that direction and would, therefore, refer the issue to the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure for its consideration and recommendation. Id.

Perhaps there is some hope for a Rule change that would expand the nature of the voir dire required in Maryland.

It is well established that "It is the responsibility of the trial judge to conduct an adequate voir dire to eliminate from the venire panel prospective jurors who will be unable to perform their duty fairly and impartially, and to uncover bias and prejudice." Washington, 425 Md. at 313.

Let us now discuss what the recent cases tell us is required.

MANDATORY QUESTIONS FOR SPECIFIC CAUSE FOR DISQUALIFICATION

AND STATUTORY GROUNDS FOR DISQUALFICATION

A trial court must ask a voir dire question if the question is "reasonably likely to reveal [specific] cause for disqualification." Pearson at 1236 (citing Moore v. State, 412 Md. 635, 663 (2010). There are two categories of specific cause for disqualification: (1) a statute disqualifies a prospective juror; or (2) a "collateral matter [is] reasonable liable to have undue influence over" a prospective juror. Pearson at 1236 (citing Washington, 425 Md. at 313). The second category is comprised of "biases directly related to the crime, the witnesses, or the defendant." Id. In this second category, counsel should be prepared to establish that the specific facts of the case make relevant the asking of the proposed voir dire.

(1) Statutes disqualifying a prospective juror

Courts and Judicial Proceedings § 8-103(a) of the Maryland Code states that an individual qualifies for jury service for a county only if the individual:

1. Is an adult as of the day selected as a prospective juror;

2. Is a citizen of the United States; and

3. Resides in the county as of the day sworn as a juror.

Courts and Judicial Proceedings § 8-103(b) of the Maryland Code states that an individual is not qualified for jury service if the individual:

1. Cannot comprehend spoken English or speak English;

2. Cannot comprehend written English, read English, or write English proficiently enough to complete a juror qualification form satisfactorily;

3. Has a disability that, as documented by a health care provider's certification, prevents the individual from providing satisfactory jury service;

4. Has been convicted, in a federal or State court of record, of a crime punishable by imprisonment exceeding 6 months and received a sentence of imprisonment for more than 6 months; or

5. Has a charge pending, in a federal or State court of record, for a crime punishable by imprisonment exceeding 6 months.

(2) Collateral matters likely to have undue influence over a prospective juror

Examples of questions that may lead to answers that would disqualify a prospective juror based upon a collateral matter having an undue influence over a prospective juror are the following:

a. Do any of you have strong feelings about [the crime with which the defendant is charged]?

On request, a trial court must ask this question during voir dire. Pearson v. State, 437 Md. 350 (2014) (abrogating Shim, Sweet and Thomas).

Voir dire should not be asked in the form of "Does any member of the jury panel have such strong feelings about [the charges in this case] that it would be difficult for you to fairly and impartially weigh the facts?" as this improperly shifts responsibility to decide a prospective juror's bias from the trial court to the prospective juror. Pearson (abrogating Shim, 418 Md. at 54). ***Thus, the practice of simply asking during voir dire whether prospective jurors can be fair and impartial is improper. Pearson, at 1242.

Once the proper question is asked, a prospective juror is not automatically disqualified simply because the prospective juror responds affirmatively to the "strong feelings" voir dire question. Rather, after the prospective juror is individually questioned by the attorneys or on request by the trial court, the trial court must determine whether or not that prospective juror's strong feelings about the crime with which the defendant is charged constitute specific cause for disqualification. Pearson at 1240.

The requirement that there be the follow-up inquiry as to the effect of the "strong feelings" affirmative answer provides the necessary opportunity for the court and the parties to delve into the basis for the "strong feelings" so that the court has a proper basis for determining whether or not to excuse the juror for cause.

b. Have any of you ever been a member of a law enforcement agency?

In certain cases, a trial court on request must ask this during voir dire, such as where all of the State's witnesses are members of law enforcement agencies or where the basis for a conviction is reasonably likely to be the testimony of members of law enforcement agencies. Pearson (overruling Davis). In these instances, a prospective juror's experience as a member of a law enforcement agency has a demonstrably strong correlation with a mental state that could give rise to specific cause for disqualification. Pearson at 1242 citing Curtin, 393 Md. at 607 (citation and emphasis omitted). Thus, a defendant is entitled to know whether a prospective juror has worked in the law enforcement field if all of the State's witnesses and/or the witnesses whose testimony is reasonably likely to be the basis for a conviction are members of the law enforcement community.

Just as with the "strong feelings" question, a prospective juror is not automatically disqualified just because the prospective juror responds affirmatively to the "member of a law enforcement agency" voir dire question. Pearson at 1243. After the prospective juror is individually questioned by the attorneys or upon request by the trial court, the trial court determines whether or not the prospective juror's having been a member of a law enforcement agency constitutes specific cause for disqualification. Pearson at 1243.

c. Would any member of the jury panel be inclined to give either more or less weight to the testimony of a police officer than to any other witness in the case, merely because the witness is a police officer?

***Just because the trial court may have asked "Have any of you ever been a member of a law enforcement agency?" this does not alleviate the obligation of the trial court to ask the voir dire question asked by the circuit court in Pearson: "[W]ould any member of the jury panel be inclined to give either more or less weight to the testimony of a police officer than to any other witness in the case, merely because the witness is a police officer?" Pearson at 1242-43.

Placement of undue weight on police officer credibility is a discriminating factor, regardless of whether the defendant testifies. Compare Langley v. State, 281 Md. 337, 349 (1977) ("[W]e hold that in a case such as this, where a principal part of the State's evidence is testimony of a police officer diametrically opposed to that of a defendant, it is prejudicial error to fail to propound a question such as...whether any juror would tend to give more or less credence...[to a police officer].") to Bowie, 324 Md. at 7-10 (although Bowie did not testify at trial, and thus there was no testimony by a defendant that was "diametrically opposed" to the testimony given by the officers, the holding in Langley was nonetheless dispositive of the issues; credibility of witnesses is not an issue only when different versions of the events in question are specifically presented by opposing parties; rather, "whether, or not, a defendant elects to take the stand or to present evidence at all, it is still necessary to determine whether witnesses called by the State will start with a 'presumption of credibility' simply because of the positions occupied rather than the facts of the case.")

The witness occupation question seeks to uncover biases with regard to "police or other official witnesses" and therefore is mandatory in the situation where police officers or other official witnesses are expected to testify during trial. Moore, 412 Md. at 655. The possibility was left open whether other occupations could warrant a voir dire question designed to uncover biases held by potential jurors based on a witness's occupation. Washington 425 Md. at 322-323.

The right to these law enforcement questions is not automatic. Be prepared to proffer why the issue of law enforcement witnesses in the case and potential issues regarding law enforcement witness credibility make these questions relevant and appropriate to the factual circumstances of the case at hand.

d. Whether any prospective juror has had an experience, status, association, or affiliation?

On request, a trial court must ask this during voir dire if and only if the experience, status, association, or affiliation has a demonstrably strong correlation with a mental state that gives rise to specific cause for disqualification. Pearson, 86 A.3d at 1236 (2014).

The category or affiliation question seeks to uncover biases with regard to "official or non-official" witnesses called by the State or the defense. Moore, 412 Md. at 653.

This subset should not be subsumed within the witness occupation question above. Moore, 412 Md. at 666.

In Moore, the Court addressed a trial judge's refusal to ask "Would any prospective juror be more likely to believe a witness for the prosecution merely because he or she is a prosecution witness?" and "Would any prospective juror tend to view the testimony of a witness called by the defense with more skepticism than witnesses called by the State, merely because they were called by the defense?" Moore, 412 Md. at 642. Although Langley addressed police officer credibility, the core of the holding is whether a witness is more credible than another simply because of that witness's status or affiliation with the government and thus could implicate many more occupations and categories. Moore, 412 Md. at 649-50.

Thus, the heart of the issues presented in Langley, Bowie and Moore is whether it is appropriate for a juror to give credence to a witness simply because of that witness's occupation, or status, or category, or affiliation. Washington, 425 Md. at 319-20. But, in a situation where "no police or other official witnesses will be called by the State, the occupational, or status, question need not be asked." Id.

e. Whether any prospective juror has a bias against a defendant's race, ethnicity, or cultural heritage?

A prospective juror with bias against a criminal defendant's race, ethnicity, or cultural heritage is not qualified to sit on that defendant's jury and, therefore, a requested voir dire question designed to uncover such bias in a prospective juror is mandatory. Hayes v. State, No. 2684, Sept. Term, 2012 (Opinion May 1, 2014) at 9 (internal citations omitted). It would be reversible error to refuse to ask a requested voir dire question about racial basis. In Hayes, the defendant requested that the panel be asked "Mr. Hayes is an African American. Would that fact in any way impact your ability to be fair and impartial?"

Hernandez v. State, set the standard for asking these types of questions when requested: "Where a voir dire question has been properly requested and directed to bias against the accused's race, ethnicity, or cultural heritage, the trial court ordinarily will be required to propound such a question, regardless of the existence of special circumstances." 357 Md. 204, 232 (1999). Hernandez was Hispanic. He requested the following voir dire question: "Is there any member of the panel who would be prejudiced against a defendant because of any defendant's race, color, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, or sex?" 357 Md. at 206-07.

f. Whether any prospective juror has a bias against a defendant's religion?

"[I]f the religious affiliation of a juror might reasonably prevent him from arriving at a fair and impartial verdict in a particular case because of the nature of the case, the parties are entitled to...have the court discover[...] them." Casey v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Balt., 217 Md. 595, 607 (1958).

Overall, it will be a fact specific determination that the trial courts must make. There are certain areas where, if directly related to the case before the court, inquiry is mandated during voir dire of a jury panel.

BUNDLING SENSITIVE OR HIGHLY PERSONAL QUESTIONS

The Hayes Court tells us that with respect to a question like race, this "does not concern an objectively verifiable non-controversial topic" but rather "is highly subjective, and not only that, calls upon the juror to whom the question is posed to make a personal self-assessment on a topic of great sensitivity. In today's world, a truthful yes answer to that question likely would be a source of embarrassment to the person giving the answer." Hayes at 11. Thus, the question should be bundled with routine voir dire questions. Hayes at 11. This is not limited to questions of race, but obviously applies to how the voir dire process approaches any and all sensitive questions.

"[V]oir dire can be and often is structured to encourage honest answers to embarrassing, sensitive, or highly personal questions. On its own initiative or upon the request of counsel the trial judge can bundle those questions with routine questions, so a "yes" response by a venire member in front of the entire venire will not be revealing to the other potential jurors or anyone else present in the courtroom. Any '"yes" answer will result in the juror being questioned individually at the bench" Hayes at 10. Make sure the court lets the prospective jurors know that they will be asked a list of questions and not to respond to any until all have been asked. Only then will affirmative responses be taken. The "cover" is then provided for the prospective juror who needs to answer in the affirmative but does not want fellow prospective jurors to know the question to which the affirmative answer is being given.

THE ADVOCATE'S RESPONSIBILITY

The first consideration is to identify the significant issues in the case - and then to fashion voir dire that is relevant to the case at hand. Boilerplate voir dire is fine as a starting point - but not as an end product.

Remember, just because a question may not be one that has been mandated as a required question, does not mean the question is not appropriate. Many careful judges, who take the jury selection process seriously, will work with you to fashion questions that address pertinent issues in the case if you can persuade them that the questions are appropriate based upon the specifics of your case.

Second, do your best to ensure that the process cultivates honest answers in an atmosphere that is not embarrassing for the prospective juror. Get the juror to the bench to answer such questions. This happens as a matter of course as to most questions. Keep your antennae tuned, however, to the juror who responds in the affirmative to the question about whether he or she knows a witness and that witness happens to be a critical witness to the case. Don't let that answer be given in front of the other jurors. The answer may be innocuous or it may go to the heart of the issues of witness credibility - "I've known Mr. Witness for 20 years, seen him in church every Sunday and think very highly of him" - or it may be the opposite - "Mr. Smith is a rotten SOB." Similarly with respect to the answers about whether a witness has read or heard anything about the case, don't be asleep at the switch when an answer may taint the entire array. Get to the bench.

Third, listen carefully to answers and observe body language of the potential jurors. Get your head out of your notes. "Look and listen!" Have your client look for a juror's reactions as well and have your client let you know what he or she may have observed about the juror when you were not looking.

Fourth, don't be the proverbial "potted plant" during the voir dire process. Your role is to ask follow up questions if necessary. The Hayes Court tells us that "[d]espite the limited nature of voir dire in Maryland, counsel are not mere bystanders to the voir dire process...[and] may with permission pose follow-up questions[.]" Hayes at 10. Develop your own style of probing and also be respectful and attentive to the way your question may be perceived by the prospective juror. If you already know the prospective juror is not getting on the jury because you will use a preemptory challenge if you cannot get the juror excused for cause, then you may be ok with being a little more aggressive and pushy in trying to get the prospective juror to answer a question that may provide a basis for a challenge for cause. Otherwise, don't start off with creating a bad impression with a juror who may be on your panel by the manner in which you ask follow-up questions.

Fifth, as with so many aspects of a criminal case, preserve the record. Note your objections. Note your dissatisfaction at all appropriate stages. If your requested voir dire has not been asked, if you challenge for cause has been denied, if other objections have been made during the jury selection process - don't ever tell the judge that you are satisfied with the voir dire if all your questions have not been asked or if your challenges have been overruled. Later, when the jury is in the box and you are asked if you are satisfied with the jury, make it clear that any satisfaction is subject to and without waiving your prior objections. Review the cases where issues regarding jury selection have been deemed not preserved because at the end of the process counsel announced "satisfied" when asked if counsel was satisfied with jury as seated or empanelled. You have a number of chances to fail to preserve the record. Don't be a failure.

CONCLUSION

Remember the old saying - "it never hurts to ask." Think about what to ask, ask it and if it is not asked, preserve it. Advocate for questions that will help the fairness of the process. To repeat, what is minimally necessary is not the same as "best practices." What is a little extra time when liberty and reputation and fairness are at issue? Here's to hoping that your trials occur in front of the "best judges" - those who not only do what is required but who also are willing to take the time necessary to ensure a fair trial, a fair jury and that the litigants' positive perception of our system of justice is underscored by a fair and deliberate jury selection process.