Honest Answers: Learning How Best To Phrase Questions To Prospective Jurors In Voir Dire

giles_lindaby Hon. Linda E. Giles

Voice of the Judiciary 

Trial lawyers and I have not always seen eye-to-eye on the purposes or methods of juror voir dire.  As a trial judge, I view the overarching objective of juror voir dire as the selection of an impartial jury, with a corollary need to make sure peremptory challenges are exercised constitutionally.  Many trial attorneys admit freely that they are interested in as partial a jury as possible, with the subsidiary goal of learning as much as possible about the selected jurors so that they might later tailor arguments and present their case more persuasively.

With the advent last year of attorney-conducted voir dire in Massachusetts, we now have an array of mechanisms for conducting voir dire of prospective jurors:  (1) traditional, judge-controlled questioning of prospective jurors; (2) attorney-conducted voir of individual jurors (each examined one at a time by the attorney or self-represented party at sidebar or in the absence of the rest of the venire); or (3) panel voir dire (the questioning by counsel or pro se litigant of jurors as a group).  There has been much recent discussion within the Superior Court and the bar about which of these methods, alone or in combination, is more effective generally or in a particular case.

I am here to say that, whatever your goals in selecting a jury and whatever mechanism you select, if you want “to learn whether [a juror] . . . has . . . formed an opinion . . . or is sensible of any bias or prejudice,” G. L. c. 234, § 28, it is the phrasing of the voir dire questions themselves that matters most.  The simple truth is that questions do more than solicit information; “[q]uestions put words in answerers’ mouths.”  Kellerman, Kathy, “Persuasive Question-Asking:  How Question Wording Influences Answers” (2007).  The slightest differences in a question’s form, phrasing, terminology, and presumptions can alter the answer the prospective juror gives.  Id.  If a universal aim of jury selection is to elicit truly honest answers from prospective jurors, then we trial judges and lawyers alike should be mindful of and seek out training on the type of questions that could best accomplish this shared goal.

Questions shape answers in many ways.  A “suggestive question,” for example, is one that implies that a certain answer should be given in response, Copeland, James M., “Cross Examination in Extemp,” National Forensic League (2010), or includes an assumption as accepted fact, Loftus, Elizabeth F., “Eyewitness Testimony,” Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (1996).  Asking, “Don’t you think this was wrong?,” subtly influences the respondent into answering in the affirmative, whereas a one-word variant of that question, “Do you think this was wrong?,” does not.  “Repeated questions” may make interviewees think that their first answer was wrong, leading them to change their answer.  See Lyon, Thomas D., “Questioning Children: The Effects of Suggestive and Repeated Questioning,” Electronic Publishing, Inc. (1999).  A “forced-choice question,” e.g., “Is this yellow or green?,” forces people to choose between two options when neither choice may be true or might need more explanation.  See Peterson, Carole, & Grant, Melody, “Forced Choice:  Are Forensic Interviewers Asking the Right Questions?,” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science (2001).

“Confirmatory questioning” during voir dire can be particularly risky.  Confirmatory questions are those posed to support a preexisting perception.  For example, if a questioner assumes a hypothesis about a respondent, such as being extroverted, he/she may slant the questions to confirm that hypothesis, e.g., “What would you do if you wanted to liven up a party?” or, “In what situations are you most talkative?”  Snyder, M., & Swann, W. B., “Hypothesis Testing Processes in Social Interaction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1978).  Conversely, if the interviewer wanted to make the interviewee look introverted, he/she would ask questions like, “Have you ever been left out of a social group?” or, “In what situations do you wish you could be more outgoing?”  Id.  In both instances, the questioner simply finds what he/she expects to find.  Such an intentional or unintentional strategy can produce non-representative answers that are shaped by the questions asked.  See Swann, W. B., Guiliano, T., & Wegner, D. M., “Where Leading Questions Can Lead:  The Power of Conjecture in Social Interaction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1982).

Moreover, many people have a tendency to say what they believe is acceptable or appropriate.  This is the so-called “social desirability bias.”  Fisher, R. J., “Social Desirability Bias and the Validity of Indirect Questioning,” Journal of Consumer Research: 20, 303-315 (1993).  Whether questioning jurors individually or in a group, there is a great danger that venirepersons will tell the judge, attorney, or litigant what he/she wants to hear. In addition, prospective jurors who experience difficulty discerning “desired” answers may choose not to answer at all.  Marshall, L. L., & Smith, A., “The Effects of Demand Characteristics, Evaluation Anxiety, and Expectancy on Juror Honesty During Voir Dire,” The Journal of Psychology (1986).

Several states, including Texas, North Carolina, and Maryland, have adopted rules prohibiting improper “commitment” (or “stake-out” or “precommitment”) questions in juror voir dire, see, e.g., Standefer v. State, 59 S.W.3d 177, 183 (Tex. Crim. App. 2001); Hyundai Motor Company v. Vasquez, 189 S.W.3d 743, 756 (Tex. 2006); State v. Parks, 324 N. C. 420, 423 (1989); Stewart v. State, 399 Md. 146, 162 (2007); some other federal and state jurisdictions have addressed the issue in the context of “death-qualifying” juror voir dire in capital cases, see Morgan v. Illinois, 504 U.S. 719, 735-736 (1992); U.S. v. Tsarnaev, U.S. District Court No. 13-CR-10200-GAO (Dist. Mass. 2014).  A commitment question is one that “commit[s] a prospective juror to resolve, or to refrain from resolving, an issue a certain way after learning a particular fact.”  Standefer, 59 S.W.3d at 179.  “[A]n improper commitment question seeks to create a bias or prejudice in the panelists before they have heard the evidence.”  Rodriguez-Flores v. State, 351 S.W.3d 612, 621 (Tex. App. 2012).  An example of an improper commitment question (asked by the prosecutor in a drug case) would be the following:  “If the evidence, in a hypothetical case, showed that a person was arrested and he/she had in his/her pocket a crack pipe with residue in it, is there anyone who could not convict a person based on that?”  Standefer, 59 S.W.3d at 179.  This question asks the jurors whether they would resolve a person’s guilt based on his/her possession of a residue amount of cocaine in a crack pipe.  Id.  By contrast, the question, “If the alleged victim is a nun, could you be fair and impartial?,” is not an improper commitment question because it does not ask the panelist to resolve any issue in the case based on the fact that the victim is a nun, only to commit to what the law requires, i.e., being fair and impartial.  Id. at 180, 181.

Not all case-specific questions are inappropriate, of course.  “[T]he proper tests for whether a question is a ‘stake-out’ question are the following:  (1) Does the question ask a juror to speculate or precommit to how that juror might vote based on any particular facts? or (2) Does it seek to discover in advance what a prospective juror’s decision will be under a certain state of the evidence? or (3) Does it seek to cause prospective jurors to pledge themselves to a future course of action and indoctrinate them regarding potential issues before the evidence has been presented and they have been instructed on the law?”  U. S. v. Johnson, 366 F. Supp.2d 822, 845 (N.D. Iowa 2005).  The line between a proper and an improper commitment question is not always a bright one.

This discussion of framing voir dire questions only scratches the surface.  I am concerned that trial judges and attorneys are not well informed about or skilled at asking questions during juror voir dire.  I strongly urge the courts and the bar to develop training programs on the topic of questioning prospective jurors.  By learning to keep our words out of the jurors’ mouths, we can achieve a more effective, trustworthy way of choosing a jury.

Judge Linda Giles has served as an Associate Justice of the Superior Court since 1998. She is an adjunct professor of law at Suffolk University Law School and a member of the Board of Editors of the Boston Bar Journal. Judge Giles is a graduate of McGill University and New England School of Law.

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