Voir dire literally means to speak and to hear. During voir dire, prospective jurors are asked to orally respond to certain questions touching upon their qualifications to serve as jurors in a particular case. These questions may be posed to the panel by counsel, the Court, or both. Whatever the practice employed, the objective of the exercise will be to elicit certain information from each juror so as to provide each party with pertinent background information about them. At a minimum, each prospective juror will be asked to state his name, address, occupation and marital status. They may be asked to describe what their particular job entails and they may also be asked to describe in detail, if applicable, their spouse’s occupation and job responsibilities. They may also be asked to provide certain details about their family and educational background.
If a prospective juror is qualified to serve in a given case, he/she will constitute a member of the panel from which the petit or trial jury will be drawn. In order to legally qualify for jury service in a given case, a prospective juror cannot be related by blood or marriage to any of the parties to the litigation. Moreover, the prospective juror must be impartial and able to make decisions without favoritism or bias. If he does not possess these minimum qualifications for jury service, or otherwise have some physical or mental impairment which would impair or impede his impartial and conscientious consideration of the evidence, he will be excused from jury service. If he does possess these minimum qualifications, then he is eligible to serve upon the jury.
During the voir dire process, the Court will determine whether all prospective jurors are legally qualified to serve upon a particular jury. If not, and upon motion by either party, the juror will be excused for cause. Thereafter, the assessment will be made by both sides as to whether certain jurors are desirable as potential members of the jury panel.
As indicated above, at a minimum, during voir dire the prospective juror is questioned about his address, occupation, and marital status. In the Trial Court’s discretion, each party may also inquire about certain views the prospective juror has or whether they have had certain experiences. For example, prospective jurors may be asked if they have ever served on juries before, whether they have been a victim of a crime, or whether they have ever appeared as a witness in a courtroom proceeding. They may be asked how they feel about certain matters likely to be in dispute. They may also be asked if they have had any personal experiences that relate to certain issues in the case. While responding to these questions, defense counsel and the prosecutor each have an opportunity to assess the particular juror. Does the person appear to be sincere? Are they intelligent? Do they appear to be conscientious and honest? Do they have any bias or favoritism with respect to the issues of the case? By hearing the juror’s responses and observing their demeanor, each party is better enabled to make these determinations.
In some cases, the voir dire process may take several days. This is the exception, however, and not the rule. Except in those instances where the facts of a given case have been highly publicized or are otherwise extremely controversial, the voir dire process usually is concluded in a few hours. From the panel of prospective jurors, twelve jurors must be chosen. Usually, one to four alternates are also selected. In the event any of the original twelve become disabled during the trial, the selected alternates will take their place. The number of alternates selected will normally correspond to the estimated length of the trial with more alternates being needed for lengthy trials.
Prior to the beginning of jury selection, each side will present to the Court a list of proposed voir dire questions which they wish to propound to the Court. The Trial Court will determine which of the questions shall be allowed and may permit counsel to question the panel as a whole with the approved questions or may conduct the voir dire examination itself. In either event, after all questions have been asked and answered, the parties are ready to actually select the jury.