Seeking the 'truth'

Examining the intricate process of jury selection

Nearly 50 prospective jurors gathered in the district courtroom at the Moffat County courthouse Thursday, bound by the civic duty to decide the guilt or innocence of one of their peers.

They drummed their fingers, read books and chatted with each other, and there were circulating speculations about what kind of case they were summoned to hear.

Not all would make the cut, and most were probably happy not to. After nearly four hours of scrutiny, 13 jurors had been chosen to hear arguments in a case alleging serious drug offenses were committed by a Craig man.

They were the chosen -- the seemingly unbiased citizens who survived the process of selecting the jury, known to officers of the court as "voir dire." Literally translated, the French term means "to speak the truth."

The jurors were grilled for hours about potential conflicts that might inhibit their abilities to be "fair and impartial." It was a phrase repeated perhaps a hundred times, as the potential jurors voiced concerns and the judge asked them to examine their own hearts to see if they could muster the objectivity the proceedings would require.

Their comments seemed to represent genuine candor, not merely attempts to evade the calling.

Judge Michael O'Hara congratulated them and reaffirmed the importance of the jury, loosely comparing a jury summons to a military draft.

Diana Meyer, the clerk of court for the 14th Judicial District in Moffat County, started the process five weeks ago. Using software to enter the logistical details, she initiated the spinning of the computerized juror wheel that would randomly select about 90 Moffat County citizens for Thursday's trial.

Meyer said the master list is built from voter registration and driver's license databases. All of Colorado's juror summonses are prepared on Thursdays and sent to a company in Utah called Moore Business Forms, which prints and mails the notices.

The selected residents then arrange with their employers, daycare providers and families to attend the voir dire proceedings.

In Colorado, employers are expected to pay an employee's usual wages for the first three days of jury service.

Beginning on the fourth day, the state pays district court jurors $50 a day for their service. Additionally, jurors can turn in mileage sheets for travel expenses.

Once assembled before counsel and the judge, the potential jurors undergo a series of questions aimed to uncover obvious bias or legal restrictions that might preclude them from serving.

O'Hara started by explaining to the crowd the vital importance of several principles of the nation's judicial system.

He spoke of the presumption of innocence, which binds jurors to assume no guilt on the part of the accused.

This was problematic to one juror, who confessed that if the defendant had "got this far" in the system, he must have done something wrong.

She was excused.

O'Hara explained that individuals who are charged with a crime in the U.S. "get this far" by asserting their right to a trial. A jury trial is the forum in which accused persons refute accusations made by the state.

O'Hara talked about the burden of proof, which requires the prosecutor to prove the defendant's guilt. He said the defense has no duty to "prove" anything.

And he talked about the defendant's right to remain silent, which he called a "precious" and "absolute" right.

What followed was a relatively rapid decline in the number of prospective jurors.

The prosecutor's father was excused for obvious reasons.

The court released a woman who underwent recent spinal surgery and a man awaiting a lung biopsy.

A woman who previously worked for the District Attorney's office left after she confessed she wasn't sure if she could be unbiased.

One man said the reports he read in the newspaper left him feeling prejudicial, while two others said the media coverage would not affect their objectivity.

O'Hara excused two more after they said they would unconditionally believe anything a police

officer said while on the witness stand.

Family relationships came to light when the judge asked if any of the prospective jurors knew each other. Even more hands went up when the court inquired if any of them knew the prosecutor.

O'Hara said he's used to those kinds of potential conflicts in small towns, when most of the people in the courtroom know each other in some respect. It wasn't a guaranteed dismissal though. The judge pressed the jurors one by one, asking them if the relationships would cause them to feel pressure to vote in agreement with family members or acquaintances.

When O'Hara finished, the defense and the prosecution addressed those in the jury box, uncovering still more potential prejudices.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Waite said he doesn't perform any special "jury profiling" to determine beforehand which people might be the best jurors. His questions are meant to get a feel for the jury and uncover "obvious bias."

"I've toyed with the idea that you could throw up the first 12 and be good, but we do need to get through those people (with biases), and this process helps us do that."

With 25 people still sitting in the jury box after all the questioning, each attorney exercised six peremptory challenges. In essence,

they scratched the names of six prospective jurors without announcing or specifying any reason. When the challenges were complete, a jury of 13 Moffat County citizens remained. The jury of 12 -- with one alternate -- would hear the case.

After a lunch break, the opening arguments began.

And those who hours before had been just faces in the crowd had become the panel of peers that would decide the direction of one man's life.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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