Like many other occupations and fields, the legal system has been transformed by the coronavirus pandemic. There have been several changes to some of the traditional aspects of the legal system, from holding virtual hearings to dealing with outbreaks in jails.
Detainment and trials are not the only aspects of the criminal justice system that are in the process of changing due to the pandemic. A recent piece published in the Washington Post posits that the pandemic has had an effect on jury selection – and defendants may be paying the price:
[D]efense attorneys around the country say they’ve noticed a new discrepancy since trials have resumed after being suspended at the onset of the pandemic: Covid-conscious people are being excluded from juries, either through self-selection or with dismissals by judges. They worry these juries are even less skeptical of police and prosecutors, and thus are even more likely to convict.
How has the pandemic influenced jury selection?
The short answer? Attorneys and jury consultants have used the pandemic to select jurors with more conservative ideologies. John Campbell, a jury consultant in St. Louis, states that a conservative jury in a criminal trial is three times more likely to convict a defendant. This information speaks to the fact that who is selected as a juror is just as important as the evidence in a trial.
Even before the pandemic, jury selection has been a tricky business. Though you are Constitutionally guaranteed a right to a jury of your peers, very few defendants actually do. As the Post writer explains:
Defense lawyers have long complained that juries aren’t representative of the surrounding community. Because of the low pay and required time away from work or home, the poor and those with hourly wage jobs are far less likely to serve on juries. Those who do serve are also more likely to have their own transportation and child care. Retirees are more likely to serve on juries; younger people, less likely. Those who vocally support police and prosecutors are less likely to be excluded from juries than people openly skeptical of either. People who believe certain classes of laws are immoral or illegitimate — such as drug laws — are unlikely to serve on a jury at all. And, of course, non-White people are routinely excluded from juries at disproportionate rates.
All of this assume, of course, that potential jurors even show up at all. Dan Engleberg, chief of trials for the public defender’s office in Orleans Parish in Louisiana, stated that fewer people are showing up for jury duty. There is a justified fear that attorneys will have to select a number of jurors from a limited population; and even worse, select from a group of jurors who will be less inclined to believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
(For the record, failure to show up for jury duty in Tennessee can lead to a contempt of court charge and a $500 fine. So if you do receive a summons, do not ignore it.)
Has the court backlog influenced jury selection?
Another potential issue that defense attorneys are worried about is how the backlog in trials will affect jury selection. Due to the number of trials still yet to be held, judges are becoming more lenient (or more desperate) in determining whether jurors are potentially biased, or if they reflect the surrounding community. The screening questions asked by judges and attorneys may be pushed to the wayside.
Even when there are enough jurors to hold a trial, the introduction of virtual court presents an entirely different set of problems. Per the Post:
Jurors dialing in from home may be more easily distracted or do other tasks during the trial. “I’ve seen judges dismiss jurors in Zoom trials because of spotty WiFi connections,” says Campbell. “So you may be selecting for wealthier, more educated people. Or you may be selecting against people in rural areas.” And some lawyers believe video trials dilute the Sixth Amendment right to confront accusers.
Additional concerns with post-covid trials
Not all jury trial problems are related to the juries. The backlog created by the pandemic also violates some defendants’ right to a speedy trial. Public defenders have stated that they have clients who were arrested before the pandemic on a misdemeanor, or minor, charges, and still are waiting for a trial to begin. Others say their clients are more willing to accept plea bargains so they can get out of jail.
Few experiences are more frightening than being accused of a crime. But you are presumed innocent under the law – and an experienced Sevierville criminal defense attorney can ensure that this right is upheld. At Delius & McKenzie, PLLC, we defend your rights under the law when you stand accused of a crime. Please call 865-428-8780 or submit our contact form to make an appointment to request an in-custody visit. We are proud to protect clients in and around Sevierville, Seymour, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge.
Attorney Bryan E. Delius was born and raised in Sevier County, TN. He founded Delius & McKenzie more than 20 years ago, after receiving his JD from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is admitted in Tennessee and in several federal court systems. Learn more about Bryan E. Delius.