Should Background Checks Be Done on Jurors?
Jurors are often said to be fair and impartial, but the Brandon Mitchell controversy shows that this might not always be the case.
Recently, news surfaced that Brandon Mitchell, a juror in the Derek Chauvin case, attended a Black Lives Matter march wearing a t-shirt written: Get your knee off our necks.
Many saw Mitchell’s t-shirt as a clear reference to the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin.
The incident has raised concerns about a possible mistrial and juror bias.
According to the American Juror website, juries are vital because they “guarantee all people, regardless of race, religion, sex, national origin, or economic status, the right to trial by an impartial jury. Justice ultimately depends to the large measure upon the quality of the jurors who serve in our courts.”
How Jury Selection Works
In the United States, any literate, unconvicted, mentally stable citizen over 18 years old can be eligible for jury duty. To become a juror, a person must be fair, impartial, and unbiased.
Lawyers and judges randomly choose people from voter and driver’s license registrations. The chosen people have to fill out a questionnaire to check whether they qualify for jury duty.
The following people are excused from jury duty: those above 70 years old, those with children under the age of 10, students, caretakers, those with mental or physical disabilities, and non-English speakers.
To see if they’re suitable to become jurors, lawyers and judges question eligible people in a courtroom in a process called voir dire. In voir dire, judges exclude anyone with knowledge about the case and those with strong biases about the issues or people involved in the case.
Federal petit jurors are paid $50 for their services. If the trial goes beyond ten days, they then receive $60 a day. Federal grand jurors are paid the same daily wage, except that they only get paid $60 a day once a trial goes on longer than 45 days.
Both federal petit and grand jurors receive meal and accommodation allowance (if they work overnight) and reimbursement for transport and parking fees.
Jury selection criteria and reimbursements differ depending on state and district.
In the United States, there’s no federal law that requires employers to pay employees during jury duty. Employers aren’t allowed to fire or intimidate any jurors.
To check or not check?
The matter of background checks is a controversial one. Some think that lawyers and judges shouldn’t do background checks because doing so would allow lawyers to cherry-pick the jury.
Others say lawyers and judges should do background checks to ensure that jurors are indeed fair and impartial.
I’m of the second opinion. The consequences of the jury’s verdict are far-reaching and difficult to reverse.
Therefore, every effort should be made to ensure that the jury’s verdict is indeed fair and unbiased.
At the same time, I don’t think that jurors in the United States can be entirely honest and impartial. I say this because American society — like many other societies — is built on biased and unfair beliefs and practices.
The existence and prevalence of the internet also make it difficult to find people who haven’t heard of famous cases. It’s even harder to find people who the media and politics haven’t influenced.
With that said, I do, however, believe that the following measures can help make trials as fair and impartial as possible:
- Do thorough background checks on jurors
Background checks need to be done on potential jurors that don’t just focus on criminal history. They should also include a social media sweep and interviews of those close to the potential juror.
2. Train The Jury
The jury’s job is very important, and as a result, I think that jurors should be trained to do it properly. The training doesn’t have to be complicated or extensive.
Included in this training should be anti-bias training that makes jurors aware of bias in themselves and others. Anti-bias training should also have easy and practical methods that jurors can use to circumvent biases. Goals and criteria for what the state considers to be a fair and impartial trial must also be made clear to the jury.
3. Involve professionals in the voir dire
Although lawyers and judges are legal specialists, they aren’t medical specialists nor sociologists. As a result, they can’t reliably evaluate someone’s bias or mental stability, especially since they have a vested interest. It might then be beneficial to include people trained to evaluate bias and mental stability, such as psychiatrists and sociologists who’ve undergone anti-bias training.
4. Allow an independent and professional body to do jury selection
As some have noted, lawyers are susceptible to bias because they’re so close to the case. This is why it might be a good idea to let an independent, trained body carry out jury selection to ensure as much fairness and impartiality as possible.
Finally, although citizens must answer jury duty questionnaires honestly, it’s still the government’s responsibility to verify this information.
The United States government can’t just hope to find fair and impartial citizens for jury duty. It must accept that citizens can be dishonest, biased, and unfair, and they should try to make provisions for that. The United States government can’t just have blind faith in jurors because that creates a breeding ground for bias and inequality.
Although the media, politics, and social conditioning can influence citizens, the United States government can take steps to make the jury as fair and unbiased as possible.
These steps include doing thorough background checks on jurors, training jurors, involving medical and sociological experts in the voir dire, and making an independent and knowledgeable body responsible for jury selection.
If the United States government decides to keep the jury system, it’s in its best interest to implement these measures, as justice depends on them.