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Flaws in Our Justice System, Part IV: The Impossible Impartial Jury

This is Part IV of a four-part series published by Wolf Law, LLC, which aims to highlight and discuss flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system. This series is meant to be informational only and is by no means an exhaustive list of every flaw or injustice. We hope examining these topics will help everyone (not just those entangled in the criminal justice system) bring awareness to disparities that adversely impact individuals, families, and the community at large.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution states that criminal defendants are guaranteed (among other things) the right to trial by an impartial jury. This right is essential to the notion that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. 

While most prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys agree that an impartial jury is fundamental to the pursuit of true justice, that’s not what actually exists in a trial. Selecting a truly impartial jury is, to some extent, impossible. Jurors are human, and so the best we can hope for is a jury that is asimpartial as possible. 

The Myth of Impartiality

Juries are made up of people, and each one brings their own ideas, beliefs, experiences, biases, and motives to the jury table.

That means that every potential juror has preconceived ideas about the case or the people involved. 

Jurors, for example, may have prejudices based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any number of other factors. When they apply these biases toward the defendant, plaintiff, attorneys, judge, other jurors, and/or victims (even unintentionally), it affects their ability to render a verdict based solely on the evidence presented.

Prior knowledge of the event or crime in question can also affect juror impartiality. The ideal juror is someone who doesn’t know of the event before the trial. Without prior knowledge of the incident, the juror doesn’t have a preconceived opinion, and the only information they use to make their decision is the official evidence they’re presented with. For centuries, this was fairly easy to achieve for all but the most publicized cases.

However, as media coverage of events became more common and thorough, finding jurors with minimal prior knowledge of cases became nearly impossible. In the 1991 case Mu’Min v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment does not require that jurors be ignorant of the event and issues involved. 

More recently, studies have shown that social media can have a significant impact on a juror’s ability to render an impartial verdict. Not only does social media offer a juror access to countless opinions about the event in question, it also allows jurors to easily discuss the case with each other outside of the courtroom rather than limiting their communication to the deliberation space.

In short, while the idea of a completely impartial jury was always unrealistic to some extent, it’s far more so today.

Most potential jurors have access to endless information about a case and (knowingly or unknowingly) harbor strong beliefs, biases, and opinions that challenge their ability to remain impartial.

The Impact of Voir Dire Inquiry

In an attempt to reach the Sixth Amendment goal of an impartial jury, the jury selection process includes voir dire or the examination of potential jurors. In this process, the judge and/or attorneys on both sides of the case interrogate potential jurors to try to choose individuals who have no preconceived opinions of the defendant’s guilt.

Voir dire questions are designed to determine whether a potential juror is capable of impartiality despite their personal beliefs. However, many potential jurors don’t admit to having preconceived ideas or prejudiced viewpoints. Most people also underestimate their own implicit biases and the effect that media coverage of an event has on them. 

Plea Bargain or Trial? 

Studies show that jury trials are increasingly rare, and many cases are settled through plea bargains instead. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the expense and time it takes to go through a jury trial. Some attorneys also view jury trials as less predictable and slower than mediation or plea bargaining.

Of course, every case is different, and every defendant has a right to trial by jury. Whether a trial or a plea bargain is better depends on the unique aspects of the case. A good defense attorney should be open to both options and work with their client to find the right one. 

Final Thoughts

Impartiality is one of the pillars of true justice. Without it the outcome of a trial is almost certainly unjust.

Unfortunately, no trial features a jury of individuals who are completely impartial. And in some instances, the outcome of the jury selection processes can make or break the case for defendants as well as the prosecution.

This is one reason why many cases end up resolved through plea bargains rather than trials. For cases that do go to trial, however, we must insist that judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys do their best to build a jury that is as impartial as possible. 

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