New Jersey launches one pilot programin select counties that will largely change the way a potential jury pool is trimmed before a trial begins.
The program, which begins September 1 in the counties of Middlesex, Bergen and Camden, will give attorneys the opportunity to lead the questioning of potential jurors, rather than having the show lead by the judge presiding over the case.
“By doing this, you’re trying to make sure there isn’t anyone on the jury who you feel will not be treated fairly towards you,” said Domenick Carmagnola, past president of the New Jersey State Bar Association.
The move is one of many recent proposals approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court aimed at eliminating bias during the jury selection process.
“The studies show that attorneys are better at uncovering prejudice and biases than judges,” said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “Ultimately, we think this is the system that gives us the best chance of getting juries that are truly representative of the diversity of our state.”
The pilot program will be voluntary, meaning both the prosecutor and defense attorney would have to agree to the process, known as attorney-led voir dire.
The program is limited to criminal cases – particularly criminal cases with only one defendant. The Bar Association’s Carmagnola said it was one of the problems the group had in conducting the dry run.
“Our recommendation was not just to do it with criminal cases,” he said. “Include civil matters so we have a broader base to look at.”
They also criticize the rule that participating attorneys must agree to a reduced number of compelling challenges (objections to potential jurors). Currently, the defense is allowed 20 decisive challenges and the prosecution 10 in cases of murder, sexual assault, burglary and other serious crimes. With this pilot project, the defense has eight and the prosecution six.
Other reforms the Supreme Court announced in July include restoring jury eligibility for people who have served their sentence on a criminal conviction and beginning the process to increase jury salaries.