Back in 2005, Scott Peterson was convicted of the Christmas Eve murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son. Initially sentenced to death, an appellate court reduced the sentence to life in prison.
Now, a very public exploration of the voir dire process and one juror’s conduct could ultimately lead to a new trial for Peterson.
What’s voir dire and why is it so important?
Voir dire, or the lengthy questioning of prospective jurors by all sides before a final jury panel is selected, is integral to the process of selecting a jury. More importantly, it’s the process of “weeding out” jurors who may have conscious or unconscious biases that could affect their judgment in a case.
Since nobody can see entirely into another person’s mind, it relies on jurors being candid about their experiences, knowledge and beliefs from the very start – including when they are asked to fill out any questionnaires.
The lack of candor and clarity by one female juror on the Peterson trial has led to allegations that the jury was tainted by her biases. Although she had obtained restraining orders against an abusive partner and another person in the past while she was pregnant, the juror had indicated on her juror questionnaire that she had never been a crime victim nor involved in a lawsuit.
Peterson’s defense says that the juror would never have been seated had she admitted the truth and that she may have been pursuing a personal “vendetta” against the defendant. Prosecutors admit that the juror probably wouldn’t have been seated, but allege that there’s no evidence that she – or the rest of the jury – behaved improperly during deliberations.
The outcome of this case still remains to be seen, but it’s a sharp reminder that mistakes made in voir dire can happen – even in cases with such intense national interest. Regardless of anyone’s feelings about a particular defendant, justice isn’t served with a tainted jury, so those mistakes may form the basis of a criminal appeal.