A Snail's Pace
The jury selection process in Casey Anthony’s trial is exasperatingly slow, to say the least, but it serves as a valuable lesson in how the legal process works in the United States, and Florida, in particular. The fact that we get to watch the challenges unfold right before our eyes, in real time, is a fascinating study in civic duty and our obligation as citizens to serve on trials. One of the reasons why this case will remain with us for many years to come has less to do with the defendant than it does with someone else. Whether she’s convicted or not, Casey will be forgotten, but the one person who will, no doubt, leave an indelible impression on all of us is Chief Judge Belvin Perry, Jr. How many of us know more about rules and statutes because of him? His knowledge of law is impeccable, and he has a personality that shines. He grows on you, and it’s not just because he is well versed. No one can pull the wool over his eyes, and if there was ever a judge who wasn’t born yesterday, this is the one. Along with giving us an education, he’s got a down home, folksy charm that makes him endearing. He’s like that favorite teacher from grade school you never forgot, and I am not alone when I say that he has taught me a lot during the past year..
Take jury duty, for example, since we’re right in the thick of it. To be a juror in Florida, the qualifications are quite simple. You must be at least 18 years old, a U.S. citizen, and a legal resident of the state. Generally, you must reside in the county where the trial will take place, but not in this case due to the publicity. You must also possess a drivers license or a state issued ID card. When Judge Perry asked Jose Baez if he needed to go to a nearby homeless shelter to look for potential jurors, marginally, they would have had to possess at least an ID card.
To be disqualified, the law is very straightforward. Aside from the obvious, such as a lack of any of the qualifications cited above, the grounds for challenging individual jurors for cause would be along the line of having an unsound mind or having a bodily defect that would render the person incapable of performing the duties of a juror. There are many others, including conscientious beliefs that would preclude the person from finding the defendant guilty, or a state of mind regarding the defendant, meaning that person “has formed or expressed any opinion or is sensible of any bias or prejudice concerning it.” There’s plenty of that in this particular case. If the person is a convicted felon or convicted of bribery, forgery, perjury or larceny, forget it, unless their rights have been restored.
As we’ve already seen, a potential juror could request to be excused because of hardships. Judge Perry has been quite liberal in this regard. Many of the prospects cited issues over money and family. While he could have told them to try to make arrangements, he didn’t. He let them go. If you are an expectant mother or over 70-years-old, you can be excused if you don’t wish to serve. Some of the people questioned were responsible for the well-being of someone who couldn’t take care of themselves. If you are the parent of a child under 6 and not working full time, you can be excused. If you’ve reported for jury duty within the past year, you may be exempt. At the discretion of the judge, attorneys and physicians don’t have to serve; lawyers because of possible conflicts of interest, and doctors because of the nature of their work – to save lives. Of utmost importance, everyone who will sit in judgment (or judgement; both are correct) of Casey must be death qualified, in which the death penalty is a prospective sentence. Life without parole is the other option. Or a not guilty verdict.
Because this is a capital murder case, the judge is granting the prosecution and defense an abundance of time to question jurors in preliminary examinations and voir dire, where lawyers question potential jurors to see if their personal backgrounds might affect their ability to rule fairly. According to the law.com Website, “one of the unspoken purposes of the voir dire is for the attorneys to get a feel for the personalities and likely views of the people on the jury panel. In some courts the judge asks most of the questions, while in others the lawyers are given substantial latitude and time to ask questions.”
If you feel that this procedure is moving at a snail’s pace, it is, and for good cause. In Carver v. Niedermayer, 920 So2d 123 (Fla 4th DCA 2006), the Fourth District Court of Appeal concluded from the record in this case that the trial judge abused his discretion in limiting voir dire examination as he did, and his ruling was reversed. Judge Perry knows case law, the likes of which I’ve never seen, and from watching him in the courtroom, he can roll off an abundance of examples at the drop of a hat. That’s one of the things that makes him so endearing; his vast knowledge of the law. Consequently, with each new juror that comes into the courtroom, he apologizes for the amount of time this is taking, but of course, it’s one of the reasons why he has never had a case overturned. He’s methodical and he knows how to run a courtroom efficiently. As much as we know him to keep things running at a good clip, he’s not about to throw caution to the wind, and at the rate jury selection is going, well, there’s no doubt in my mind that this process is going to take a lot more time than originally expected. Despite limiting each side to one half hour, I should still have the opportunity to write about other issues related to the jury, such as learning the attitudes and characteristics of potential jurors through voir dire, and the difference between challenges for cause and peremptory challenges or strikes.
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