Everyone has heard of the term “fair trial’ – but what does this really mean? The right to a fair trial is part of our constitutional right to due process. This means that your life, liberty and property cannot be taken away without following proper legal procedure. Part of due process is the right to have your criminal case heard by an impartial jury panel and judge.
Picking an Impartial Jury
The way to ensure a fair jury panel is through the “voir dire.” The voir dire is the pretrial procedure where the defense and prosecution attorneys question each potential juror to make sure they can be fair. If a juror has connections or past experience that will affect their ability to be impartial, he or she can be stricken from the panel “for cause.” For example, a juror can be stricken for cause if they have been the victim of a similar type of crime – if the criminal charge is armed robbery and the person was previously the victim of an armed robbery, the criminal defense lawyer will ask the judge to excuse the juror. The attorney is asking the judge to find the potential juror unable to be impartial because of their past experience.
Another example of a jury member who should be excused is a juror who has some kind of connection with the district attorney’s office. A couple of years ago, I was trying a second degree murder case and during the voir dire, we learned that one of the jurors had a daughter who had previously worked for the district attorney’s office. We moved to strike the juror for cause and the judge agreed.
The Judge Needs to Be Impartial Too
Even though the jury will be making the final decision on your guilt or innocence, the judge must also be impartial in the rulings he or she may make during the trial. If a judge cannot be completely impartial, he or she must “recuse” or remove themselves from the trial and allow another judge to preside over the trial. Recently I had a judge recuse himself because his aunt was a neighbor of one of the victims of the alleged crime of which my client was accused. The judge did this because he had learned some details of the case that might affect his ability to approach the case with an open mind.
Judges who have any possible conflict, inside information or any fact or detail which may lead them to lean one way or another, ought to recuse themselves. A skilled criminal defense attorney will be on the lookout for any issues which may be considered “recusal issues.” For example, if you discover that the judge in your criminal trial had previously been a law partner with one of the prosecuting attorneys – even if it was 25 years ago – this may be grounds for recusal. In this instance, the judge may unconsciously favor the prosecution because of the past connection. Therefore, the defense attorney is entitled to have judge recused.
The right to a fair trial includes the ability to recuse either the judge or a jury member who cannot be completely fair and impartial. An experienced criminal defense attorney will recognize when there may be issues and will move to have a judge or jury member excused. You only have one chance at a fair trial, so make sure your rights are protected.