The Problem of Juror Bias

“A jury verdict is the quotient of the prejudices of twelve people.” Kenneth Grubb, Attorney

Anything I missed?   Juror Bias is a difficult problem that must be ferreted out by the trial attorney in almost every trial. Quite honestly, this can not be effectively done without the cooperation of the jury. I will often close my voir dire with a question such as this:

I have limited time to ask you questions. I learned long ago that I need your help to do the best job I can for my client. I may not have been smart enough to ask something which would have an impact, even a little on you coming into this with an open mind. Is there anything you would want me to know about your background that you are aware of that if you were in my client’s position here?

Is there anything you would want me to know about your opinions or philosophy that you are aware of that I have not asked about, that if you were my client, you would want me to know about?

The trial court shall sustain a challenge for cause if the prospective juror is biased or prejudiced for or against a party to the case. J.R. 17(a)(8). This is no small matter. If found after the trial has begun, it may require the grant of a mistrial. “Generally, proof that a juror was biased against [a party] or lied on voir dire entitles [a party] to a new trial.” Thompson v. Gerowitz, 944 N.E.2d 1, 7-10 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011)(med mal case), citing to, Lopez v. State, 527 N.E.2d 1119, 1130 (Ind.1988). To warrant a new trial, there must be a showing that the misconduct was gross, and that it probably harmed the defendant. Id.; see also Ind. Trial Rule 61 (“The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”). “The issue of juror misconduct is a matter within the trial court’s discretion.” Lopez, 527 N.E.2d at 1130. If substantial evidence showing a juror was possibly biased is brought to the trial court’s attention in a timely manner, it is incumbent upon the trial court to conduct a hearing, out of the presence of the remainder of the jury, to determine:

(1) whether the juror is biased; and

(2) whether the hearing itself has created a bias in the juror. Id.

The court should then allow the affected party to challenge the juror for cause, and should excuse the juror and declare a mistrial if bias is found to be present and infected the jury. Thompson v. Gerowitz, supra. However, establishing juror bias can be particularly problematic. Below is a discussion of some areas of potential bias or prejudice on the part of a juror.

Insurance     Voir dire questions regarding ownership in a specific insurance company or whether the potential juror was insured by that company are proper. Wisner v. Laney, 984 N.E.2d 1201 (Ind.,2012), citing with approval to, Stone v. Stakes, 749 N.E.2d 1277 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), trans. denied.

I.R.E. 411 while not controlling, provides guidance on this topic as well, since the restriction on the introduction of evidence of insurance is not absolute and makes exceptions for proof of other matters. The court in Stone v. Stakes noted that Indiana Evidence Rule 411 states that “[e]vidence that a person was or was not insured against liability is not admissible upon the issue whether the person acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully.” Id. at 1281. However, this rule “does not require the exclusion of evidence of insurance against liability when offered for another purpose, such as . . . ownership, or control, or bias or prejudice of a witness.” Id. (quoting additional language from the evidentiary rule). The court further noted that although Rule 411 is an evidentiary rule not strictly applicable to voir dire, “it provides some guidance in this area regarding what categories of inquiry are acceptable. Rule 411 does not limit the allowable evidence regarding insurance only to financial interest, but also allows evidence going to bias or prejudice.” Id. In the matter of Beyer v. Safron, 84 Ind. App. 512, 151 N.E. 620 (1926), the Court stated:

[L]itigants are entitled to a trial by a thoroughly impartial jury, and to that end have a right to make such preliminary inquiries of the jurors as may seem reasonably necessary to show them to be impartial and disinterested. It is a matter of common knowledge that there are numerous companies engaged in such insurance, and that many of the citizens of the state are stockholders in one or more of them. Such citizens may be called as jurors, and if at such time they are such stockholders, or otherwise interested in any of such companies, their pecuniary interest might disqualify them to sit as jurors.

Id. at 621. In this day of endless insurance company commercials, it seems unlikely such questions are any less relevant or any more likely to be unfairly prejudicial to a defendant than they were back in 1926. Questions embracing this topic would be appropriate provided the questioning is not prolonged or designed to attain some improper end.

Implied Bias – Juror’s Relationship To State. Woolston v State, 453 N.E.2d 965, 968 (Ind. 1983) involved a juror who had a close relationship to the State Police due to his wife’s employment. The juror was familiar with three of the officers who were to testify for the State, and knew that his wife had worked on some of the evidence in the case. Noting that a challenge for cause had been held to exist in cases where a juror’s spouse had been hired for future employment by the prosecutor, and where the juror’s wife was a second cousin to a member of the prosecutor’s staff, Woolston found that, based on the juror’s relationship to the State, it was error for the trial court to deny the challenge for cause.

Knowledge of Matters Outside of the Court Record

Jurors are required to decide a case only based upon the evidence presented at trial and are not to consider matters outside the record. This point is made clear by a number of different provisions. For example, under I.R.E. 606(a), “[a] juror may not testify as a witness before the other jurors at the trial. If a juror is called to testify, the court must give a party an opportunity to object outside the jury’s presence.” If a juror has specialized or particular knowledge outside of the record, they are not permitted to use it in either deciding the case or in their deliberations with other jurors, since to do so makes them in essence a silent witness in the case.

By analogy, judges are similarly prohibited from acquiring knowledge outside the record in deciding a case. Lillie v. US, 953 F.2d 1188, 1191, 34 Fed. R. Evid. Ser. 938 (10th Cir. 1992)(held where Judge based verdict on an unannounced view of the accident scene he violated Federal Rule of Evidence 605); US v Lewis, 833F.2d 1380, 1385, 24 Fed. R. Evid. Ser. 432 (9th Cir. 1987)(held where Judge relied upon his own personal experience as to the effects of anesthesia in determining the voluntariness of a confession, he violated the prohibition against being a witness under Federal Rule of Evidence 605).

Under Indiana Jury Rule 24, in a criminal case, if the court receives information that a juror has personal knowledge about the case, the court shall examine the juror under oath in the presence of the parties and outside the presence of the other jurors concerning that knowledge. If the court finds that the juror has personal knowledge of a material fact, the juror shall be excused, and the court shall replace that juror with an alternate.

When jurors possess knowledge as a result of their education or occupation, it is important to question the juror and make sure that they will decide the case based upon the testimony in court and not the knowledge they possess from outside of the courtroom. Otherwise, they become a witness whom no one had a chance to depose, question, rebut or impeach.

Likewise, knowledge of a case garnered from the press or other outside sources becomes problematic and must be dealt with under Indiana Jury Rule 24 (in criminal cases) to see if the juror has formed an opinion and if that opinion can be set aside and the case decided solely on the evidence presented at trial. Individual voir dire is required in addressing such matters.

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall have the right to a public trial, by a fair and impartial jury. See Indiana Constitution, Bill of Rights, Article 1. Bill of Rights, Section 13 and United State Constitution, Bill of Rights, Amendment VI; Ward v. State, 810 N.E.2d 1042, 1048 (Ind.2004), cert. denied, 126 S. Ct. 395 (2005). “At the heart of the decision on a motion for change of venue is the right to an impartial jury.” Ward v. State, supra; Lindsey v. State, 485 N.E.2d 102, 106 (Ind. 1985). A defendant must demonstrate the existence of two distinct elements:

(1) prejudicial pretrial publicity and

(2) the inability of jurors to render an impartial verdict.

Ward v. State, supra, 810 N.E.2d at 1049. “Prejudicial pretrial publicity is that which contains inflammatory material which would not be admissible at the defendant’s trial or contains misstatements or distortions of the evidence given at trial.” [Emphasis Added]. Ward v. State, supra, quoting from, Burdine v. State, 515 N.E.2d 1085, 1092 (Ind. 1987). In protecting a defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury, the trial court may consider granting a change of venue, or change of venire as a means of achieving this end. When a change of venire occurs, the location of the actual trial does not change. However, a juror pool from outside of the affected area of pretrial publicity is brought in to serve.  Such motions need to be promptly raised (within 30 days of the initial appearance) or a party risks waiving the issue and being required to show good cause for failing to raise the matter earlier.

Regarding the examination of potential jurors, under IC 35-37-1-5 (b), “If a person called as a juror states that the person has formed or expressed an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant, the court or the parties shall proceed to examine the juror on oath as to the grounds of the juror’s opinion. If the juror’s opinion appears to have been founded upon reading newspaper statements, communications, comments, reports, rumors, or hearsay, and if:

(1) the juror’s opinion appears not to have been founded upon:

(A) conversation with a witness of the transaction;

(B) reading reports of a witness’ testimony; or

(C) hearing a witness testify;

(2) the juror states on oath that the juror feels able, notwithstanding the juror’s opinion, to render an impartial verdict upon the law and evidence; and

(3) the court is satisfied that the juror will render an impartial verdict; the court may admit the juror as competent to serve in the case.”

Covering these points should assist you in identifying and establishing juror bias. Good luck.

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About Richard A. Cook

Richard Cook graduated from Purdue University in the Economics Honor Program in 1979 and obtained his Juris Doctor degree from Valparaiso University School of Law in 1982. Following law school, Richard served as a federal law clerk in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. In 1984, Richard began working as Deputy Prosecutor for the Lake County Prosecutor's Office and from there, served as Assistant U. S. Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. There he handled a number of complex criminal matters and jury trials. While there, Richard received the Chief Postal Inspector's Special Award and a letter of commendation from the U.S. Attorney General for his work prosecuting a major money order fraud scheme being perpetrated out of the Indiana State Prison system. Since leaving the U.S. Attorney's office in 1989, Richard has focused primarily on civil work and is currently a member of the firm Yosha Cook & Tisch in Indianapolis. Richard is also a member of the ITLA, IBA and the ABA, as well as, a fellow for the American College of Trial Lawyers. He is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell.

Posted on November 5, 2014, in Jury Selection and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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