Eric Stewart: Running Off At The Mouth

Voir Dire: The Death Penalty in Florida

by Eric Stewart on Jul.17, 2011, under Life

So, I renewed the registration on my truck.  Very close in time to doing so, I got a nice letter from the county court that my presence would be required for Jury Duty.  Work covers my pay while attending jury duty, so I initially considered it simply a day away from work, as I would have expected (due to my history and views) to be excluded by the end of the day.

Alas, that’s not what happened.

Living in such a large county, Jury Duty is always an experience with lines.  The first line I ended up in was the line to enter the building through security.  This one had been kind of short, as I arrived early in an effort to avoid the line.  Then there was the line into the Jury Auditorium, where we all sit waiting to be put in a pool.  But right off the bat, things went sideways.

The line enters the auditorium and there’s a small desk where a lady takes your paperwork.  Standing in front of her this day was a woman who asked:

“Do you have any travel or doctor’s appointments in the next three weeks?”

I had travel (involving my first anniversary with my wife) at four weeks, so I said, “No.”

The response was: “Go into that room over there.”

Once they had 60 of us, it was explained to us that there was a death penalty case that they need to choose a jury for.  We were told where to go and when to be there by.

At least one of us (Juror #1 of 60) didn’t get the message, and we were lined up into 6 rows of 10 (well, row 1 started with 9, of course).  These lines would become familiar to us, as throughout the next three days, we would be in these lines every time we entered the courtroom.

There were a lot of people already in the courtroom.  The principle people involved were the bailiffs (the main one being the one that talked to us most of the time and handed the microphones to us), the judge, the defendant, and four lawyers – two for the prosecution, two for the defense.

Here’s where we get into the meat of this post.

The judge explained to us how Death Penalty cases work in Florida.  It’s a two-phase process:

  1. In phase 1, the defendant’s guilt or innocence is decided.
    • Guilt is to be “to the exclusion of, and beyond, a reasonable doubt.”
    • A guilty verdict requires all 12 jurors to vote guilty.
    • A number of alternate jurors will be on the panel, but unless one of the 12 main jurors leaves during the trial, they do not participate in any deliberations.
    • Though there may be other charges against the defendant, obviously the one of main concern is First Degree Murder.  While, of course, there’s quite a bit to it, there are two forms of this:
      1. Premeditated
      2. Felony Murder, where a death occurs during the commission of a felony (it is a limited list of the felonies that can result in the charge of Felony Murder)
  2. In phase 2, which could be considered on some levels to be a different trial, with additional evidence submitted, the jury provides a sentencing recommendation.
    • The two options in the recommendation are “Life In Prison” (without parole) or “Death”.
    • The jury need not be unanimous.  Each juror votes their opinion.
    • The prosecution must prove at least one aggravating factor (the list of aggravating factors is defined by law) for the jury to consider “Death” as an option.
    • The defense can introduce mitigating factors (some are suggested by law, but they are not limited to that list).
    • The standard of proof for an aggravating factor is the “beyond a reasonable doubt”, but the standard of proof for a mitigating factor is “reasonable belief of existence.”
    • It is up to the juror decide the weight of factors.  It was suggested that it is not a simple numbers game, and that even if no mitigating factors were proved, but an aggravating factor was, the juror was still free to vote “Life”.
    • The judge is under no obligation to follow the jury’s recommendation … but our judge stressed to us that he would give it serious consideration while rendering his decision.

So, that’s what was laid out before us (as well as the expected schedule, which was of some concern, because if the trial went even a little long, my wife would have killed me).

The voir dire then proceeded with questions regarding phase 2.  This caused some frustration with me, as pretty much every question (from one of the prosecutors, who went first, and then one of the defense attorneys) was preceded with “Assume the defendant is found guilty of all charges … ”  The phase 2 portion of the voir dire going first is apparently set by law.  We were questioned about our views and opinions, and our ability to follow the law.  It can be a little unnerving to be asked your opinions regarding participation in assisting the state with deciding whether or not to put someone to death … with the person there in the courtroom.  Especially when they are calling you by your full name.

It took more than a day, but at the end of the first day, 14 additional potential jurors were dismissed (I was not one of them), knocking us down to 45.  The jury questioning involving phase 2 ended early on day 2.

The next day and a half involved, as you would guess, two other lawyers (another prosecutor and another defense attorney) getting up and asking us questions, this time about phase 1, involving our personal views and experiences, and again, calling us by both name and number.  It gets a little exasperating, as often they’re going one by one (skipping only a few of us) the same question, over and over again.  And the frustration was a bit higher as now you’re not supposed to assume the defendant is guilty.  So, if you have little trouble separating it all out, you could get a little confused.

Then, after being told to wait outside 30 minutes, and then being told it would be another 30 minutes, and then being told to go to lunch, and then being told (after lunch) that it would be a while longer, we were all called in and told …

apologetically …

by the judge that the last three days had been pretty much a waste.  The court (meaning the four lawyers and the judge) could not appropriately agree on 12 jurors and a number of alternates for the trial, and that they’d have to do it again … hopefully with a larger pool of potential jurors.

Not surprised, really; go back to the beginning, and realize that you have to have four lawyers agree on (as an estimation) 15 people out of a group of 60 to start with.  Not gonna happen, most of the time.

So.  If you find yourself in this situation, what do you say if you don’t want to be in the jury?

Well, for me, I took an oath and was very serious about it.  From that point on, it would have been wrong to lie.  When would it have been okay in my opinion?  And when should I have lied?

Right at the beginning when asked about my vacation plans.

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