Jury trials are perhaps the greatest equalizer of the US legal system: A panel of your peers decides if you committed a crime, or are at fault for someone's injury or any number of legal wrong-doings. Who are these "peers" and what makes them qualified to make decisions affecting your future?
Today, lawyers are using non-traditional tools to help decide which potential jurors are right for your case.
Tried-and-True Jury Selection
From criminal trials to personal injury lawsuits, the key to winning any legal case is picking a jury likely to be on your side of the case.
For decades (if not longer), lawyers have decided which potential jurors they want on the jury through two primary tools. In most states, courts send potential jurors questionnaires asking about their employment, education and other basic personal information. Lawyers in the case are shown the questionnaires, but usually only shortly before the jury selection process begins.
Voir dire is when lawyers from both sides of the case ask potential jurors questions, in court and face-to-face, about practically anything that may shed light on how they feel about the particular case and parties involved in the case. The questions are designed to gauge how each juror might decide the case - guilty or not guilty, responsible or not responsible.
Many lawyers hire outside companies specializing who try to understand who the "model" juror is for a particular case. They tell the lawyers to look for jurors within a certain age range, male or female, ones with certain education and work histories, just to name a few traits. They may also read facial expressions or other body language signs to see your reactions. These companies aren't cheap and can add costs to a trial.
There are even "apps" to help the lawyer in the courtroom. One is iJuror that an attorney can add information about you at the flick of the fingertip. Another, JuryTracker, even tracks time spent on looking for jury details.
Online Clues to You
With millions of Americans using computers and mobile devices to post blogs, opinions and personal information on sites like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace, the internet is a treasure trove of free information. Many lawyers know this and use the internet to find out as much as they can about potential jurors in cases they're handling.
As you can imagine, they can discover a lot. Depending on how active you are online, a lawyer - or anyone, really - can discover, or at least get clues about you:
- Are you married?
- Do you have kids?
- Did you go to college?
- What type of job do you have?
- Who did you vote for in the last election?
- What are your opinions on hot topics like abortion and gun rights?
Any, and all, information may be helpful to determine how you might vote in a certain case.
There are some possible pitfalls to using social networks and blogs, etc., to gauge potential jurors' worth to a case. For instance, you can't always believe everything you read. Some people like to boast and exaggerate, while some are outright untruthful.
Also, a juror who likes social networks may cause problems in the courtroom. For instance, in 2011, a juror in a California criminal trial posted a message on his Facebook page, during trial, saying he was "bored." It's possible the defendant's conviction could be thrown out for juror misconduct.
It's Legal, Within Limits
Anything you post online fair game. It doesn't matter if your neighbor, teacher, spouse or a lawyer you don't know reads it. However, a lawyer may face ethical problems and other legal consequences by:
- Contacting a potential juror, online or otherwise, to get more information about the juror or to discuss the particulars of a case
- "Friending" or becoming a "Fan" or otherwise connecting with a potential juror to gain more information than what's available to the public
- Use a false identity to, or ask someone else to, gain access to "private" blogs and postings by a potential juror
Being active on the web is fun, but keep in mind that anyone may be reading what you post, and may be using what you post in ways you may haven't imagined - even in a court of law.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What should I do if lawyer contacts me about a case I'm not involved in?
- Is there any way I can stop lawyers from getting my name as a potential juror?
- Is it illegal for me to post materials online to help make sure I'm never selected to sit on a jury?