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. Hinojosa, Celestine 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.