Friday, November 12, 2010

An unusual reason to get out of jury duty? Maybe not.

One of the more difficult things for a new lawyer to figure out is jury selection (or at least it was for me). I think most people, i.e., non-lawyers, are aware that certain kinds of bias can automatically get you out of jury duty. This is called a "strike for cause." The way courts and lawyers find out about juror bias is through a process called voir dire. There is also a procedure called a peremptory challenge, but the peremptory challenge isn't relevant to this post.

Cartoonist John Backderf describes his recent experience being struck from a jury pool here (you have to scroll down to the November 1, entry as his blog doesn't seem to allow links to entries by date). According to Mr. Backderf, the questions he was asked and his responses went like this:

The judge started off with questions for each juror. First question: do you know anyone who has been convicted of a crime? Almost ALL the jurors and alternates raised their hands. So he goes down the line for details.

. . .

Then he gets to me.

"I had a friend who killed 17 people."

Stunned silence. All eyes turn. Asst. prosecutor's head snaps up from his notes. Judge stares at me open-mouthed. I tell them who. "Wow," says the judge.

Further questions. What do you do for a living? Your spouse? Do you have strong opinions about the police? When the queries are finished, here is my summary:

Once drew a cartoon of the county prosecutor in a diaper? check.

Married to a local newspaper columnist? check.

Anti-authoritarian paranoid and conspiracy theorist? check.

Gave Jeffrey Dahmer rides home from school? check.

Thank you, Mr. Backderf. You are dismissed

Anyway, Mr Backderf, and others who have mentioned the case, surmise that the reason Mr. Backderf was dismissed from jury duty was because of his friendship with infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. I am not sure this is correct. Mr. Backderf is in the jury pool for a criminal matter. He doesn't say, and perhaps doesn't know, what type of crime is being tried. He makes a reference to the "Common Pleas Court" which I interpret to mean the Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas. So it appears the defendant has been charged with a felony.

In any event, given that he tells the court that he once drew a cartoon of county prosecutor wearing a diaper, and that he admits to being anti-authoritarian and a conspiracy theorist, it seems more likely to me that the answers to those two questions are what got Mr. Backderf struck from the jury. It can't be that being friends in high school with someone who later became a serial killer gets one an automatic out from jury duty? It seems more likely that the judge thought the cartoon and difficulties with authority would be enough to strike a member of the jury pool for cause in a criminal matter.

What do you think Mr. Torvik? If you were a judge would you remove friends of serial killers for cause from your jury pools?


  1. If I were a judge, I don't think I would find a childhood friendship with a serial killer to a per se basis for removal in a criminal case. But it certainly could be a basis for further inquiry, especially if the alleged crime is a violent one. The obvious follow up would be: Is there anything about your former relationship with Mr. Dahmer that you think would affect your ability to be a fair and impartial juror in this case? My guess is that Mr. Backderf would have said, "No." That would have left the issue for the attorneys to sort out with their peremptory strikes.

    I agree that his apparent anti-prosecution is more troubling. It's hard to tell from his synopsis, but based on his avowed beliefs, it seems likely that he would have admitted that he couldn't be fair to the prosecution's case. And that would probably warrant excusal for cause.

  2. The Dahmer issue might be grounds to excuse, but avowed anti-authoritariasm would be the more likely culprit.

    The Dahmer thing would definitely prompt further inquiry because it could realistically cut either way. If he had been my childhood friend and I'm an adult, do I now (1) see violent criminals in a more human light because I was once friends with one, or (2) does the fact that he led such a montrous secret life result in me feeling betrayed by his deceit? As a judge I would need to enquire.

    As a lawyer -- for either side -- I might well want this guy gone based on the Dahmer effect. I don't like unpredictable jurors.


Comments on posts older than 30 days are moderated because almost all of those comments are spam.