If you have been accused of committing a criminal offense, one of the most important decisions you will make over the course of the prosecution of your case is whether to let a jury decide your fate or not. Given the importance of this decision, it should only be made after a lengthy consultation with your criminal defense attorney. In the meantime, however, it may help to learn more about what happens at a jury trial. Toward that end, the Omaha criminal defense lawyers at Petersen Criminal Defense Law explain the jury selection process.
Your Right to a Trial by Jury
As an accused in a criminal prosecution you have a number of important rights and privileges that are guaranteed to you by the U.S. Constitution. Most of those rights are found within the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, collectively known as the “Bill of Rights.” Your right to a trial by jury is located in the 6th Amendment, and reads as follows:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Like all of your rights, your right to a trial by jury is your right to exercise or to waive. If you decide to exercise your right to a trial by jury, you will have to select a jury to hear the case.
Who Are the Prospective Jurors?
In Nebraska, a criminal jury trial consists of six or 12 jury members, depending on the severity level of the charges involved. When the court is notified that a defendant wishes to have the case decided by jury trial, the clerk’s office is also notified. A random list of names is then generated from the county voter registration, state I. D., or driver’s license records. Those people are sent a summons ordering them to appear for jury duty on the date and time specified on the summons. These people make up the prospective jury pool, though only a small fraction of them will actually make it onto the final jury.
Voir Dire — Questioning the Prospective Jurors
On the day of trial, both the State and the defense will convene in the courtroom. Some courts require prospective jurors to fill out a juror questionnaire ahead of time while some have the prospective jurors fill it out on the morning of the trial. The questionnaires typically ask basic questions such as the person’s occupation, education, and other general information as well as asking if the individual knows anyone involved in the case and other questions intended to determine if the person is disqualified for cause. A disqualification for cause means there is a legal reason why the prospective juror cannot serve on the jury.
The bailiff will bring in an initial group of prospective jurors for questioning, formally referred to as “voir dire.” Sometimes the judge will ask questions before the attorneys while in other courts the judge asks very few questions. Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney may then ask questions of the jurors. The purpose of the questions is twofold. First, the questions are intended to elicit information that would amount to a disqualification for cause, such as bias or previous knowledge of the facts of the case. The second reason is for both sides to get a feel for the individual in an effort to decide if they want the individual to remain on the jury. It is for this reason that you might hear apparently irrelevant questions such as “What is the last book you read?” or “What is your favorite movie?” These questions tell an experienced attorney much more about a person than most people realize. The answers to these questions are used to decide who to excuse using “peremptory challenges.” Each side has a set number of peremptory challenges, depending on the level of offense being tried. A peremptory challenge may be used to excuse a juror for any reason the attorney wishes, except for a discriminatory reason. As prospective jurors are excused, other are brought in and the questioning continues until both sides have used up their challenges. At that point, the people who remain in the courtroom make up the final jury who will hear the case.
Contact the Omaha Criminal Defense Lawyers at Petersen Law Office
If you have been charged with a criminal offense in the State of Nebraska, consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. In Nebraska contact Petersen Criminal Defense Law 24 hours a day at 402-509-8070 to discuss your case.