Matthew T. Mangino
The Youngstown Vindicator
September 19, 2016
The composition of a jury in a criminal trial is extremely important. In fact, there is an old joke among lawyers about the difference between jury trials in Great Britain versus the United States. In Britain, the trial starts once the jury selection ends – in America, the trial is already over.
That process is playing out in Mahoning County. Common Pleas Judge Maureen Sweeney is presiding over jury selection for Robert Seman. Seman is accused of setting a house fire that killed 10-year-old Corinne Gump and her grandparents in 2015. The fire occurred the morning that Seman was to face trial for sexually assaulting Gump.
A case can turn on the composition of a jury. As a result, the process can be time-consuming and tedious. The selection of a capital jury, one that will be asked to impose the death penalty, is jury selection on steroids.
The most dramatic difference between a regular jury and a capital jury is that each juror in a capital case must be “death qualified.” A capital juror may not be categorically opposed to the death penalty, but at the same time the juror may not be of the opinion that a first-degree murder conviction must result in the death penalty.
Last week, 19 jurors out of a pool of 160 were told to report to the court. Each of those jurors had completed a questionnaire that inquired into the potential juror’s background as well as their beliefs, relationships and opinions on various aspects of the criminal justice system.
As those jurors appear in court they are subject to individual voir dire, or in layman’s terms, individual questioning. The purpose of examining individual jurors is to reveal any potential bias.
Subjects for inquiry include: Has the juror ever been the victim of a crime? Does the juror have a family member in prison or is she related to someone in law enforcement?
Long before jury selection begins in a capital case, the attorneys involved know what they’re looking for in a juror – young or old; educated or uneducated; professional or blue collar; even whether the jury panel should be dominated by men or woman.
When there are resources available prosecutors or defense attorneys may employ the services of a jury consultant. A jury consultant can assist counsel in selecting a jury. Through focus groups and research a jury consultant will develop a profile for potential jurors.
During Seman’s jury- selection process, counsel on both sides will whittle down the number of potential jurors through a series of challenges. The first is a preemptory challenge. In Ohio each side in a capital case has six chances to remove a potential juror for any reason other than race, which is not an issue in this case.
The second type of challenge is for “cause.” If counsel can articulate a reason why a juror should be removed from the panel the judge will decide whether or not to excuse the juror. For instance, a juror tells the attorneys and judge that she has made up her mind about guilt based the news accounts that she has read or heard. The court will excuse the juror for cause without counsel having to use a preemptory challenge.
The more jurors who have been tainted by the media leads to a different problem – can a fair and impartial jury be empaneled in Mahoning County? It is not a question of whether a juror has heard about a high profile case like Seman’s, but whether a juror can set aside what they have heard and still be fair and impartial.
Judge Sweeney ruled against the defense’s request for a change of venue. The defense wanted the judge to bring a jury in from another county or have the court move the trial. Sweeney said the request to move the trial was “premature.”
However, as jury selection continues, and if it becomes increasingly difficult to seat jurors, the judge could reconsider the request.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 “ was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com.
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