by Britta Stanton
So, what are the five best questions to ask on a jury questionnaire? Really, it is a trick question. The true value in a question and the corresponding responses comes not in a magic pill, but in what you do with the responses. Let us consider five solid questions and—more importantly—how to use them.
#1: What do you do for a living? Likely, no perfect profession exists for your case—and if one exists, opposing counsel will most likely strike that person. But you can use this as a jumping off point during voir dire. Is your case about not taking corporate responsibility? Ask a manager what she does if an inferior does not do his job. Does the manager step in, take responsibility for the employee? Do you need to show ignorance is no excuse? Ask someone about a well-known rule in his job that he would know and follow even without reading an employee handbook.
#2: What is your favorite magazine or newspaper? This is a great one because it is very flexible. After eliciting responses to this question in your jury questionnaire, if you find you are lacking in information about a few shy jurors, follow up during voir dire by asking “Why?” You can create common ground and humanize yourself by stating “I like that one, too.” Acknowledging that you like a few of the “fluffier” publications helps to show you are human. If you say “I like the Economist, too” you may further convince the venire panel that they have nothing in common with you. You can use a “why” answer as an example for how to be unbiased: if your venire panelist says they like the National Review because they do not like the “liberal bias” of The New Yorker, talk about how bias can influence facts and how important it is to set aside bias when making a decision.
#3: What is your favorite movie or TV show? Similar to the prior inquiry, this is also a malleable question. It is great for quiet jurors, as you can ask for a brief synopsis of the show if they are too timid to explain “why” they like a show. If you know something about a certain show or movie (or research it, if you get your questionnaire answers the night before), you can use movie themes to parallel to your case. Movies and television are great at being dramatic. Take advantage of that drama to put your client into the position of the horribly wronged protagonist.
#4: Do you have any experience with law enforcement? This question assumes a criminal case, but you can substitute in any language related to the parties to your case. For example, do you have any experience with insurance? Medical billing companies? This type of question, while very case specific, is valuable for two main reasons. First, the purpose of voir dire is jury deselection. There may be fertile ground to make a for cause strike. Second, there may be some jurors who you do not want to touch with a ten-foot pole—or around whom you want to tread very carefully—given their work background.
#5: Do you have kids? How many? I personally love this one, because I can humanize myself by telling the jury I have four kids of my own. (Don’t have kids? Talk about your siblings, growing up.) I can use how siblings relate to each other, or how children behave, to start dozens of topics relating to the theme of almost any case. Are you a defendant and worried the jury will judge your client before you put on your case in chief? Ask the jury how many of them would hear a story told by one of their children and punish the other child before even hearing the accused’s side of the story.
The examples provided are important questions and can be used in almost any type of case. You should also ask the basics on a jury questionnaire (gender, age, marital status, etc.) to create a more accurate picture in your mind of your panel. You can ask questions specific to your case, but these open-ended, discussion-oriented questions provide great jumping off points allowing you to accomplish the real goal of voir dire: to have a conversation with your future jury. You can condition them, learn about them, establish credibility, and hopefully even make them like you a little bit…all before you give your opening statement.
Britta Stanton is a trial lawyer and partner in the firm Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst, LLP. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.