SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - A criminal defendant’s right to trial by an impartial jury of his or her peers is a bedrock principle of American law, enshrined in both the United States and Louisiana Constitutions.
When a defendant is charged with first-degree murder and faces the death penalty in the Pelican State, the jury is composed of twelve people, all of whom must agree the defendant is guilty, before his or her execution can be ordered.
While there are other felonies in Louisiana that now require a jury to return a unanimous verdict, death penalty cases are unique, in that they are essentially two trials in one. The first being a legal test to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence, and the second weighing the proper punishment, either the death penalty or life in prison at hard labor without the possibility of parole.
Since courts consider death the ultimate punishment, selecting a legally fair and proper jury takes on a heightened sense of importance in capital murder cases. So, like the trial themselves, jury selection in a death penalty case is procedurally different. Traditionally more expensive and time-consuming when compared to other criminal matters.
Put in the most basic sense, jury selection in a first-degree murder trial plays out in three phases: calling a jury pool, death qualifying potential jurors and seating the jury panel.
The process begins when a pool of people, called venires, show up at the parish courthouse for jury service, after being randomly chosen from a list of prospective jurors. Court officials get that list of names, sometimes referred to as the “jury wheel,” by combining parish voter registration rolls and driver licenses records.
While the typical venire or pool in a felony case is between 70 and 100 people, in death penalty cases the venire is much larger, usually a few hundred people.
Once the venire is chosen and assigned to the courtroom where the death penalty case is set to be tried, the judge presiding over the trial may excuse certain potential jurors from serving based on medical, financial or other hardship reasons or excuses. Because capital murder cases can last several weeks, Louisiana courts are more mindful of hardship pleas in these types of trials, but excusal from service is still rare.
At this point, defense attorneys, the prosecution and the judge, start asking potential jurors questions. Lawyers call this process “voir dire” and it is meant to weed out individuals from the jury pool who cannot keep an open and fair mind to both the defendant and the law.
This is where the greatest difference between a death penalty case and other felony trials is seen.
In Louisiana, juries must be “death qualified” when execution is a possible sentence. Therefore, during this first part of voir dire, potential jurors are asked about their views regarding capital punishment. Here, the court is trying to determine whether jurors will follow Louisiana law if called upon to sentence a defendant found guilty of first-degree murder.
Courts can eliminate “for cause” anyone who is absolutely opposed to voting for the death penalty. Prosecutors will generally move to “strike” any person who has doubts about execution, and defense attorneys usually try to exclude jurors who are so pro-death penalty they might ignore life in prison as a possible sentence.
Members of the venire that remain after this first phase of voir dire are “death qualified.”
This is when the second part of voir dire begins, with lawyers asking questions geared towards the potential jurors’ background, including education, occupation, family life, criminal record, and religious beliefs. In this phase of the proceedings, the defense and prosecution are hoping to root out any hidden biases that might tilt the jury in favor of or against the defendant.
Both the defense team and prosecutors are given a limited number of “peremptory challenges,” which allow them to strike potential jurors without having to show bias or give a reason for their exclusion.
Once the venire is culled to 12 persons, plus alternates, the panel is sworn in and jury selection is complete. This is the point where “ legal jeopardy” attaches, meaning the defendant is now on trial, facing the possibility of conviction and punishment.