Mass. Jurors Face Added Questions Before Going to Trial

By | July 7, 2006

Potential jurors in Massachusetts face greater scrutiny about their home lives, nationality and dealings with the court system under a new screening process that has just gone into effect.

The updated “juror questionnaire” asks a series of yes-no questions — such as “Been arrested?” “Been a crime victim?” “Filed a lawsuit?” — that replace one open-ended question of whether a juror has been involved in a civil or criminal case.

Potential jurors who answer “yes” to a question are likely to be called before the judge and quizzed about their opinions. If the judge determines they cannot be impartial, they’re excused. A potential juror who sued a contractor for faulty home repairs, for example, likely would be questioned by the judge in a case involving similar circumstances.

The new form also adds “domestic partner” to the list of how potential jurors identify their household status, though it allows potential jurors to define the term themselves. Other options include single, married, separated, divorced, and widowed.

Potential jurors must also now report their place of birth, rather than just where they live, and the education level of their spouse or partner.

The 350,000 residents who show up at 60 courthouses across the state each year for jury service are required by law to complete and sign the one-page questionnaire, which judges and lawyers in civil and criminal cases use to impanel a jury.

Officials hope the updated questionnaire speeds the process and provides more information to lawyers and judges.

“Our primary purpose was to speed the check-in, but if at the same time we could make the form more useful to the parties who are going to be using it, that is a benefit to everyone,” said John W. Cavanaugh, the state’s deputy jury commissioner.

Reviews are mixed so far.

“It’s a significant step forward,” said attorney David E. Frank, a former prosecutor in Bristol and Suffolk counties. “Lawyers are getting detailed, specific information that they didn’t have before. Information is key during jury selection.”

Frank, now a reporter at Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, said more information “helps both sides” of a case.

Defense attorney Robert Lewin, who won a high-profile case last week when a Marine reservist was acquitted of assault charges for firing a shotgun at partygoers, said the questions about experience with the law are “considerably more detailed” than before. But he’s skeptical about the impact.

“I don’t think you can tell a great deal about what’s on these forms,” said Lewin, a criminal defense lawyer for the past 35 years. “I really think it’s a crapshoot, which is what it should be.”

Frank and Lewin agree that even if the forms streamline the jury check-in process, they will likely slow jury selection because lawyers and judges will have so much more information to consider.

The new form reminds potential jurors that they must be a U.S. citizen, able to understand English and at least 18-years-old. A Suffolk County murder conviction from this year is in appeal after a judge discovered after the trial that one of the jurors was not a U.S. citizen.

The questionnaire, which is confidential and destroyed after trial, hadn’t been revised in about 10 years, Cavanaugh said. The state’s Jury Management Advisory Committee, comprised of judges from around the state, worked on the revision for the past eight months.

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