Like previously discussed in our blog, supplemental juror questionnaires (SJQs) are essential to getting the best possible jury and, in turn, winning your case. With COVID-19 continuing to ravage the United States, SJQs are becoming more widely used and accepted, even in the most conservative jurisdictions. They are being classified as an essential tool to get the justice system back on track by reducing the number of people needed to show up for jury duty in person. They are also exceptional at filtering out bias early on in trial preparation. SJQs have gained national attention in the criminal system with the current ongoing case concerning the death of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020 in Minneapolis, MN. Unlike most cases, the judge allowed an SJQ to be sent out over three months before the trial date as a precaution to make sure that the jury is deemed fair for both sides and that justice occurs during the March 29th, 2021 trial. Additionally, this SJQ was made public and is openly available here. Below we will discuss the SJQ, including why it was used, why it was likely approved, how it was developed, and how you can use SJQs to your benefit in the future.
Why did they use a Supplemental Juror Questionnaire?
This case revolves nearly entirely around bias. The pro-plaintiff group likely believes that there was racial bias as well as other biases surrounding substance abuse and a stigma with low-income individuals. The pro-defense group likely believes that there is a substantial bias against law enforcement. So, the question is how do you obtain a jury that is unbiased and impartial? With high-profile cases such as this, all proven tactics must be used in an effort to make sure justice is served in an unbiased manner. With heavy national attention on this case and the unfolding of an extremely polarizing event, finding unbiased individuals without a strong opinion one way or the other and who are willing to listen to just the facts can be difficult to come by.
On one hand, you have many individuals who view the case as another unnecessary black death that not only deserves justice but that can garner attention to an even bigger problem. Alternatively, there are groups of individuals who believe that the age of social media and narratives found in the news have skewed the view of law enforcement in a way that makes their job nearly impossible. Some of this group believe that what the defendants did was necessary while others in this group view the force as excessive, but believe that the stress of the job and environment in which they work can contribute to the problem.
Regardless of opinion, what needs to be understood is that it is crucial for this case to be presented to and judged by 12 unbiased individuals on the jury. An SJQ helps ensure this. With cooperation from both sides, an SJQ can be developed to ensure that those who are viewed as “extremists”, those that are biased, and those that cannot fairly judge the case are removed. The SJQ provides in-depth insight into each and every potential juror. Unlike voir dire, the questions in an SJQ are not asked in a group in front of others. Instead, the questions in the SJQ are answered in private, on the individual’s own time, with no audience looking and listening to their responses. The answers on an SJQ result in obtaining more open, truthful, and robust information. The more information either side can get about the potential jurors, the less likely the case has a biased jury that could end in an unjust result or a mistrial.
Why was the SJQ approved?
If you have ever tried to get an SJQ approved, you know that many jurisdictions are very conservative with these tools. Some jurisdictions refuse to use them while others approve them but only allow them to be completed a day or less before trial. As unfortunate and awful as the current pandemic is on the justice system and the United States as a whole, the silver lining is that most jurisdictions are being forced to take a more lenient approach and allowing SJQs to be administered and for them to be sent out earlier.
Though SJQs have many benefits, the main reason jurisdictions are becoming more lenient about their use is the current health crisis and the tool resulting in fewer individuals needed in-person. However, in the case of George Floyd, this is not the main reason. Fewer jurors needed in-person is of importance but in this particular case, the principal reason for the SJQ is to ensure an unbiased jury. This case is not only a high-profile case but involves, what some believe to be, a hate crime guided by racial bias, and others believe to be a vendetta against law enforcement. Simply put, this case is polarizing. The issue with high-profile, polarizing cases is that building an unbiased jury is impossible without SJQs and other tools.
How did each side decide on the questions?
The development of an SJQis no simple task. Each side must decide what they are willing to allow the other side to ask while also estimating what will likely be permitted for them to ask. In the case of George Floyd, the questions are more straightforward and paint a fairly obvious picture of what each side is attempting to do. The idea is not for each side to select the best possible jurors, because these jurors may be removed by the other side, instead, the focus should be to remove the worst, most biased jurors from the pool. The process of jury selection is in fact, juror deselection. In order to deselect and remove the worst jurors, specific questioning about certain aspects of the case or even personal beliefs and ideologies that will uncover signs of potential bias are the types of questions to ask in the SJQ.
When looking at this SJQ, it seems the plaintiff team focused a majority of their effort on removing those extremely biased in favor of police or against social justice groups like Black Lives Matter. This type of information can be gathered by asking questions about whether or not they have a family member in law enforcement, their view of police officers, their political views, and their views of Black Lives Matter. Similarly, the defense is looking for a specific profile, those who are anti-police or extremely biased in favor of groups like Black Lives Matter. Like with the plaintiff’s profile, this can be done by asking questions specifically targeting these belief systems and ideologies. The defense likely added questions regarding protesting, criminal records, witnessing people being arrested, and justice-related questions. However, not all of the SJQ questions have an obvious motive. Some of the questions can give both sides interesting details about jurors that may not be easy to decipher. The question “What social media platforms do you use regularly if any?” will inform both sides of potential jurors’ virtual footprints and allow them to do some more background digging into their social media platforms. Other questions like “What is your primary source of news?” provide both sides with information about jurors’ ideologies by correlating their news source with certain beliefs. For example, Fox News is usually viewed as being more conservative while CNN is viewed as being more liberal. The most detailed question in the entire document involves a Likert scale matrix that seems to target negative views of the police. This tactic, likely forwarded by the defense, provides them with a plethora of information on a single topic by asking jurors about their level of agreement with certain statements in a single matrix. This allows them to avoid simply asking something like “Do you dislike the police?” and instead, replacing that obvious question with statements accompanied by Likert scales that help paint a picture of bias against police. Some statements found in the matrix that are less obvious are “Police in this country treat whites and blacks equally.” and “People today do not give our law enforcement officers the respect they deserve.”
Overall, this entire SJQ is very in-depth, significantly more than most SJQs found in law today. Additionally, this SJQ was given a significant amount of time before the trial, roughly three months, which is nearly unheard of. This is likely for two reasons: to remove as many biased jurors as possible as early as possible and to make sure that this jurisdiction can actually be unbiased after the high-profile nature of the event along with the rioting that followed.
Can and should you use an SJQ in your case?
Yes and Yes. With COVID-19 still having a major impact on the justice system in the United States and courts doing everything possible to get cases moving again in a safe manner, SJQs provide both a way to get cases back on track by requiring fewer bodies in the courtroom. It also helps ensure the safety and well-being of these individuals again, by removing the number of people needed inside the courtroom.
Supplemental juror questionnaires should become the norm. They have no negative effect on the case or jury. They are a robust tool for removing biased jurors and making sure that justice can be accurately served no matter what size case. The SJQ found in the George Floyd case is a prime example of how these should be created and what can come of them when they are executed efficiently.
Many attorneys have used SJQs in the past, but need to realize that there is both an art and science to their creation that drastically affects their robustness. Most attorneys that have created their own SJQs put basic questions relating to connections between individuals and either party as well as some demographic information. Other attorneys may add a handful of questions about disliking lawsuits or believing there should be tort reform. However, these vague questions on an SJQ are a waste of a golden opportunity to increase your chances of winning. There are impressive data-backed question strategies that can help you uncover an individual’s unconscious “hidden” biases. These types of questions should always be included on an SJQ to gather more in-depth insights into each potential juror.
A professionally done and data-backed SJQ can provide you with a plethora of information on each individual juror that will help you develop your voir dire themes and questioning strategy and help guide your case argument and theme development. So, should you use an SJQ? Only if you want to remove biased jurors, fortify your voir dire questioning, and drastically increase your chances of winning your case. Let our experts at Jury Analyst create a customized SJQ for your specific case and guide you to the win you and your client both deserve.