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Litigation News

Litigation News | 2021

Juror's Admission of Bias Is Not Enough to Strike for Cause

Leslie Rene Snider


  • Court affirms decision to seat a juror despite her statement that she should not be seated.
  • The criminal case centered around a defendant who gambled away stolen funds.
  • A federal appellate court affirmed a ruling refusing to strike the juror for cause, even though her views raised questions of impartiality.
Juror's Admission of Bias Is Not Enough to Strike for Cause
Michael Blann via Getty Images

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In a criminal trial where the defendant gambled away stolen funds, a potential juror opposed to gambling was nevertheless seated on the jury. A federal appellate court affirmed a ruling refusing to strike the juror for cause, even though her views raised questions of impartiality. ABA Litigation Section leaders believe the ruling is an important reminder for litigators to extensively question potential jurors about their bias to adequately preserve grounds for appeal.

Court Denies Motion to Strike Biased Juror for Cause

In United States v. Dejean, a justice of the peace was indicted for stealing court funds and falsely obtaining bank loans, which he then spent gambling in casinos. During voir dire, defense counsel asked Juror 31 about her views on gambling, to which she responded, “I don’t agree with it. I just think it’s silly, a way to throw your money away, personally.” When asked whether her anti-gambling views might impact her sitting in judgment over an avid gambler, Juror 31 also responded, “Possibly.” Defense counsel also asked Juror 31 whether she believed she should sit on the case, and Juror 31 responded, “No.”

After exhausting all peremptory challenges, defense counsel moved to strike Juror 31 for cause. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana denied the motion. Following the defendant’s conviction, defense counsel moved for a new trial based upon the bias of Juror 31. The district court again rejected the motion, holding that “it was the court’s impression that Juror 31’s ultimate acquiescence was made in response to leading questions, and out of a desire to simply end the questioning.”

The defendant appealed his conviction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on the ground that Juror 31 should have been stricken for bias.

A Biased Juror Can Still be Impartial

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Though it acknowledged that Juror 31’s declaration that she “shouldn’t sit on this case” “raise[d] questions about the juror’s impartiality,” it noted that “[t]he district court properly assessed Juror 31’s testimony holistically, including her statement at the beginning of voir dire that she could put aside her personal views and decide the case on the evidence….” The court of appeals reached its conclusion by relying on United States v. HinojosaCelestine v. Blackburn, and United States v. Apodaca, a triad of Fifth Circuit decisions allowing jurors with even greater bias to remain on the jury.

The appellate court also rejected defense counsel’s argument that the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in United States v. Martinez-Salazar controlled the case. In Martinez-Salazar, a potential juror stated he “would probably tend to favor the prosecution” because he “assume[d] that people are on trial because they did something wrong.” The Fifth Circuit distinguished Martinez-Salazar, stating there was “undisputed bias” expressed against all criminal defendant in that case. By contrast, in Dejean, “the district court affirmatively found that Juror 31’s views on gambling…would not prevent her from being impartial.”

Nor did the Fifth Circuit believe that the brevity of the line of questioning amount to an abuse of discretion, though it noted that “a follow-up question may have been warranted given Juror 31’s unqualified response and the relatively short voir dire.”

Lessons for Litigators

Litigation Section leaders believe that it is vital to keep digging deep into the responses of a juror when potential bias issues appear. “First, jurors must articulate why they should not be on the jury. Many jurors view jury duty as disruptive and inconvenient. The attorneys, or the court, must inquire as to the reason jurors believe they should not be on the jury,” explains John S. Austin, Raleigh, NC, cochair of the Section’s Trial Practice Committee. “Our Constitution, our laws, and our case law demand that jurors be fair and impartial. Given the facts as presented in the opinion, the court fulfilled its duty in this case. However, if the attorney had drilled down on ‘possibly,’ there certainly could have been a different result, either in trial or appeal,” Austin points out.

Viewed from another Section leader’s perspective, “[g]enerally, courts in their gatekeeping role should disqualify jurors who admit that they carry a bias which causes them to believe they should not sit on the jury. However, the full context of the questioning of the potential juror should be considered, rather than simply one answer to a leading question,” states Tiffany J. deGruy, Birmingham, AL, cochair of the Section’s The Woman Advocate Committee. “The Fifth Circuit in its suggestion that ‘it would be prudent for the court to inquire further’ encourages judges to probe further when a juror admits he or she should not serve on a jury. Further questioning of the potential juror will add important context for the court to consider in deciding whether that potential juror should serve on the jury,” concludes deGruy.