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Voir Dire: Juror Expresses Inability To Be Fair, and Judge’s Duty To Ask Follow-up Questions Of Jurors


New York Court of Appeals  People v. Johnson  2011 NY Slip Op 04764  Decided June 9, 2011

Issue: whether the trial court was in error when it denied a for cause challenge of a potential juror when the juror stated that she might be biased in the way she interpreted the evidence and was not certain that she would be able to give both sides a fair trial.

Holding: The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred and reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.  The Court held that when a potential juror expresses doubt as to whether they can be fair in the case the trial court should either elicit some unequivocal assurance of their ability to be fair or excuse the juror.

Facts: Defendant was charged with attempted murder, kidnaping and other charges.  He did not dispute his involvement, but pursued an insanity defense.  During voir dire a prospective juror who had written a college research paper on the insanity defense stated that she would be able to set aside her personal views on that topic and apply the law as instructed.

However, she then indicated that she had a strong bias in connection with the defense and might be biased in the way that she interprets the evidence in that regard and was not certain that she would be able to give both sides a fair trial.

The trial court did not inquire further when she said this and denied the defendant’s “for cause” challenge of the juror.  The defense then exhausted all peremptory challenges.

Legal Analysis: the Court of Appeals held that when potential jurors say they question or doubt they can be fair in a case, the trial judge should either elicit some unequivocal assurance of their ability to be impartial when that is appropriate, or excuse the juror when that is appropriate.  In this case given the absence of follow-up questioning by the court after the juror expressed uncertainty concerning her ability to fairly consider a major issue in this case, the conviction was reversed and the matter remitted for a new trial.