The Vital Role of Voir Dire in Federal Criminal Trial Proceedings

To simplify, voir dire is the process of selecting a jury prior to the commencement of trial. Jurors are questioned in order for both parties, the government and defense, to determine the jurors’ background and potential biases.

Voir dire also provides the opportunity for potential jurors to meet the attorneys representing the parties involved. Significantly, voir dire is the first impression between the attorney and jury. From a federal criminal defense standpoint, when questioning and selecting potential jurors it is vital to be respectful and sincere. The selected jury should walk away from the voir dire process with an open mind before trial begins.

During the examination on the voir dire, each party has two avenues in which to challenge, or strike, a potential juror. Both parties are permitted unlimited strikes for cause, which is typically used if an attorney believes the potential juror may be biased or prejudicial in the case. For example, if a defense attorney is questioning a potential juror regarding their opinion on drug traffickers and the juror responds by stating his belief that all defendants are guilty no matter what the circumstance, the attorney may strike for cause based on the juror’s bias of the alleged guilt of all criminal defendants.

Each party may also use peremptory challenges. A party does not have to provide a reason for a peremptory challenge. Historically, peremptory challenges were unlimited and unquestionable. However, due to the rise of discrimination issues, a party is limited to the number peremptory strikes and such strikes may be questioned on the grounds of racial, ethnic or gender discrimination. If discrimination is charged, the party making the peremptory challenge must state a non-discriminatory reason for striking the juror.

In federal criminal law, the number of peremptory challenges is typically limited to ten. The court may grant additional peremptory challenges if there are multiple defendants, and may allow the defendants to exercise the challenges separately or jointly.

Voir dire is an extremely important step in the trial process. In federal criminal cases, the jury must unanimously determine that the defendant is not guilty. Therefore, voir dire allows the federal criminal defense attorney an opportunity to select a favorable jury and gain their trust before trial begins. Voir dire is the last chance to speak with the jury prior to opening statements once trial begins.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Litigation, International Extradition and OFAC SDN Litigation.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.

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