An Impartial Jury

Nothing is more important in a case than a fair and impartial jury. That is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Section 11 of the Florida Constitution. As early as 1860 our Supreme Court has said:

“Juries should, if possible, be not only impartial,

but beyond even the suspicion of partiality.”

O’Connor v. State, 9 Fla. 215, 222 (1860).

Singer v. State, 109 So. 2d 7 (Fla. 1959) is the seminal case on this issue. There the Supreme Court of Florida held that if there is any reasonable doubt as to a juror’s impartiality, that juror should be excused. Singer, supra, at 24. If a juror vacillates between statements of partiality and impartiality, that as a matter of law, creates a reasonable doubt and the juror should be excused. Plair v. State, 453 So. 2d 917 (Fla. 1st DCA 1985). In Sydleman v. Benson, 463 So. 2d 533 (Fla. 4th DCA 1985), the Court cautioned that:

“Close cases should be resolved in favor of

excusing the juror rather than leaving a doubt

as to his or her impartiality.”

Attempts at rehabilitation of a juror once that juror has indicated a predilection for one side or the other are fraught with dangers. That kind of attempted rehabilitation is viewed by the Courts with skepticism. See Club West v. TropiGas of Florida, Inc., 514 So. 2d 426 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1987). The appellate courts have held that a Judge extracting from a potential juror the commitment that they will try to be fair or even will be fair does not eliminate the prejudice or the grounds for a challenge. Leon v. State, 396 So. 2d 203 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1981), Sikes v. Seaboard Coast Line Railroad Co., 487 So. 2d 1118 (Fla. 1st DCA 1986), and Robinson v. State, 506 So. 2d 1070 (Fla. 5th DCA 1987). The law has not changed since Singer, supra. In Van Povck v. Singletary, 715 So. 2d 930 (Fla. 1998), the Supreme Court held:

“If a reasonable doubt exists as to whether a

juror can possess an impartial state of mind

in the discharge of his or her duties, that juror

is incompetent to serve and must be excused

for cause.”

In Goldenberg v. Regional Import & Export Trucking Co., 674 So. 2d 761 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996), the Court held:

“Close cases involving challenges to the

impartiality of potential jurors should be

resolved in favor or excusing the juror

rather than leaving doubt as to impartiality.”

In Rodriguez v. Lagomasino, 972 So. 2d 1050 (Fla. 3rd DCA 2008), the Third District was faced with an appeal by a plaintiff in a personal injury case involving a garden variety automobile case. Two of the jurors examined by plaintiff’s counsel made statements which cast doubt on their credibility. The case in question involved a rear end collision and one of the jurors had been involved as a driver in a similar accident. The juror felt that there had been little or no damage to the car that he had struck and when asked “would you be able to put aside what happened in your wife’s situation and listen to this testimony here in this case. Can you do this?” he responded: “I still feel a little bad about that car insurance company, but I don’t know.” When asked later if he could be fair and impartial, he indicated that he would “be in the middle.” The second juror felt strongly about caps on damages and when asked whether that could influence what he did in this particular case he replied “well of course, honestly it would because that’s part of my makeup. It all depends on the evidence presented.” When further asked “So you think, having said all that, that if you are selected as a juror, that these thoughts that you have would come into play in this particular case when you deliberate” he responded that he doubted that they would be that it was a possibility.

The trial court denied motions to strike both of these jurors for cause and the Third District reversed. At 1052, the Court stated:

“Plaintiff’s motion for new trial was denied because

the trial court opined that based upon the responses

given by Mr. Guiterrez and Mr. Hillberry they were

rehabilitated and that the challenges for cause

were not appropriate.

 

We respectfully disagree that these jurors were

rehabilitated and believe that both jurors should have

been stricken for cause. ‘When any reasonable

doubt exists as to whether a juror possess the

state of mind necessary to render an

impartial verdict based solely on the

evidence submitted on the instructions on the law

given to her by the court she should be excused.

Nash v. Gen. Motors Corp., 734 So. 2d 437, 440

(Fla. 3d DCA 1999).

Sometimes trial judges get frustrated with the inability to pick a jury expediently. They must, however, never lose sight of the underlying purpose of voir dire examination and the importance to our system of justice that a completely fair and impartial jury be seated. Time spent because jurors have to be excused for cause when a doubt exists as to their impartiality is time well spent when compared with the necessity of retrying a case because a challenge for cause should have been granted.

Originally published in March 2009