At some point in your adult life, chances are good you’ll be called to serve jury duty. But the odds that you’ll actually sit on a trial are much lower. What, exactly, makes an ideal juror? What are lawyers on both sides of a case looking for in a lineup of random people? The answer, of course, depends on the case itself. But there are a few general traits attorneys take into consideration when trying to decide whether you’d help or hurt their argument.
Attorneys don’t get to pick their jurors. Instead, using a mixture of intense questioning, keen observation, and stereotyping, they get to eliminate people they think would hurt their case. “It’s not like a baseball team where you can choose your team members,” says Jeffrey Frederick, Director of Jury Research Services at the National Legal Research Group and author of Mastering Voir Dire and Jury Selection. “It’s not who I want, it’s who I don’t want. What we try to do is think of what backgrounds, life experiences, cognitive styles, opinions, and values jurors might have that would make them less receptive to our case.” Clues like demographics and personality can improve a lawyer’s chance of predicting a juror’s stance on a verdict by up to 15 percent. Here are a few things lawyers take into consideration when trying to figure you out.
1. YOUR RELATIONSHIPS
Attorneys pay close attention to any relationships that might color your opinions. For example, “if it’s a medical malpractice case and there’s a woman and all of her friends are nurses, that might bias her a little bit,” says Matthew Ferrara, Ph.D, a trial consultant and forensic psychologist. And if you have friends or family in law enforcement, that’s a big red flag. “In a criminal case, relationship to someone in law enforcement is paramount,” Ferrara says. “People who are probation officers, police officers, jailers or are related to the same type of profession would be probably viewed as biased toward the prosecution.”
2. YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH THE LAW
Even if you aren’t directly related to a police officer or member of the judicial system, you can still have opinions about law enforcement rooted in your own personal experiences. Perhaps you feel you were unfairly ticketed for speeding, or you’ve been the victim of police profiling. This is all very important, because research shows that when juries deliberate, they spend 50 percent of their time talking about their own personal experiences as a way of judging the case. To sniff out bias, lawyers will ask jurors if they agree with statements like, “If someone is charged, they’re probably guilty,” or “Laws do more to protect the rights of criminal defendants and too little for victims and families,” or “Would you believe the testimony of a police officer based solely on his position as an officer?”
The defense is going to look for people who are more open-minded about the law, and don’t always believe that it makes the right call. The plaintiff attorney or prosecutor will generally look for people more inclined to trust authority.
One quick way to get dismissed from a jury, according to Tom King, a former Deputy Prosecutor in Indiana, is to voice strong opinions about the legal system: “Say, ‘I’ve read about these criminal prosecutions where the police and the prosecutors made up evidence and I just don’t think it’s a fair system.’”
3. YOUR INTERNET FOOTPRINT
Your public activity on various social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are fair game. Have you been sharing or commenting on any relevant news articles? Did you recently write an opinionated Letter To The Editor? Do you belong to a particular group on Facebook? All of that could show a sign of bias. “In some cases it turns out political party affiliation is relevant and if that’s the case, then you start looking at political websites, Facebook pages, campaign contributions, all kinds of things that might indicate a political orientation,” Frederick says.
4. YOUR RELIGION
One common question presented to jurors is, “Are there any religious beliefs that prevent you from passing judgment on another person?” Frederick says this is to weed out people whose faith might impede their ability to view a case objectively.
5. YOUR ATTITUDE
If you come into jury duty with an air of positivity, you increase your chances of staying on as a juror. “If they’re ticked off, I don’t wanna take that chance because that could be transferred to my case,” says King. Indeed, research shows that if you don’t vibe well with an attorney, you’re more likely to decide against their argument. “One attorney told me, 'If I can tell they don’t like me, I get rid of them,’” King says.
6. YOUR LEADERSHIP SKILLS (Or lack thereof)
Leaders, contrarians, and independent thinkers can be pivotal in a verdict. These people have the potential to rally the rest of the group behind a unanimous decision, which is great for the plaintiff or the prosecutor. But they also won’t be afraid to disagree with everyone else, resulting in a hung jury, which is great for the defense. “With the prosecution, you wanna see a group that can work together,” Frederick says. “As the defense you are willing to have people on there who will have a problem working together.” Lawyers want to identify the leaders quickly and decide if they’ll work for or against their case. “If you’re the leader and they don’t think you’re on their side, they’ll eliminate you immediately,” Ferrara says. Attorneys will look for leadership positions in your history, and take note of how assertive you are during the questioning process. “Do they tend to speak up in a group or not?” asks Frederick. “I’ve heard people correct us attorneys, and you go, ‘that’s pretty assertive.’”
7. YOUR CLOTHES
While clothing alone usually isn’t enough to get you dismissed, lawyers can make superficial judgments about your character based on your wardrobe. This even includes your shoes. According to the Synchronics Group Trial Consultants, a “nurturing, open, receptive and generous person” will likely wear casual shoes “with plenty of room for the toes, because these people don't want to be hemmed in. No pointy tips. The heels will be low, because open people want to be able to move around easily. No stilettos. Sandals, sports and walking shoes are more likely to fit this person's style than compact, tight dress shoes.” On the contrary, the Synchronics Group says, uptight and cautious jurors will wear more formal and well-maintained shoes. Generally, “if you wanna make it on a jury,” says Ferrara, “then dress conservatively and in an non-flashy manor.”
8. YOUR HAIR
Open and receptive jurors, according to the Synchronics Group Trial Consultants, will have hair that is “casual and naturally flowing, rather than highly styled or gelled or plastered to the head … Beards and mustaches will be natural looking, rather than designed and sculpted.” The old adage says you can’t judge a book by its cover, but attorneys will certainly try.
9. YOUR BODY LANGUAGE
Non-verbal behavior can say a lot about what you’re thinking. “We’re not mind readers,” says Frederick, “but you can see behaviors indicating they are really not receptive to you at all, or they’re very receptive to you, and you pay attention to that.” For example, according to the Synchronics Group Trial Consultants, open and receptive people “will be sitting in open postures, i.e., with their hands on the chair arm instead of folded across their stomach.” Lawyers will observe jurors’ faces for telling reactions while the judge reads the charges aloud. Some will “look over at the defense like they have daggers in their eyes,” Frederick says. “Or they may look over somewhat sympathetic.”
According to Trial Consulting Firm DecisionQuest, “Non-verbal behavior is only one clue as to how someone might be feeling at any given moment, not an indicator of basic attitudes or biases.” Like clothing choice and hairstyle, body language is only part of the puzzle. Still, King says, “there were times when, as soon as the jury was seated and all the other people were gone, I would look up and I would just know.”