In American jurisprudence, voir dire is an important part of the jury selection process. During voir dire, prospective jurors are asked a series of questions to determine whether or not they are fit to serve on the jury. Lawyers for both sides and the trial judge may ask questions and dismiss jurors, and it is hoped that the end result of voir dire is an impartial jury which will sit fairly in judgment on the case. In some cases, voir dire may be brief, but in complex or highly publicized trials, it can be a lengthy process.
Voir dire is a French term which means “to speak truth,” and it is pronounced more or less as “vwar dear.” In some regions, people use terms like “jury examination” or “jury selection” instead of voir dire. In addition to being used in the context of examining a jury, potential witnesses also usually submit to voir dire as a pre-screening process. The term may also be used to talk about examination of evidence to determine whether or not it can be admitted to trial.
The process of voir dire starts with calling a large number of jurors. Many Americans are familiar with jury duty, a task which all Americans are expected to perform when they are called. Typically, the court calls far more jurors than it needs, so that lawyers can strike as many jurors as they need to in order to seat a fair jury. In some cases, the jurors may fill out a brief questionnaire when they report to court, and copies of their responses are given to the judge and lawyers involved in the case.
Initially, 14 people are seated in the jury box. These 14 people represent 12 potential jurors and two alternates. The people involved with the trial ask the jurors a series of questions, sometimes in a group and sometimes as individuals. If a response indicates bias, the judge or one of the lawyers can move to “strike for cause,” meaning that the juror is asked to step down because he or she will be unsuitable. Some common reasons to strike a juror include extensive knowledge of the case or the people involved in it, a demonstrated inability to be impartial about the issue at hand, or difficulty in meeting the commitment required of a juror.
In some cases, a jury may be death-qualified (DQ). When someone is on trial for a crime which could result in a capital sentence, prospective jurors who are opposed to the death penalty will be struck. Some activists strongly dislike the practice of seating a DQ jury, in addition to opposing capital sentences in general.
Each lawyer wants to build up a jury which will be favorable to his or her side. In addition to strikes for cause, jurors are also permitted peremptory strikes, strikes for which no cause need be given. These strikes are limited, so lawyers tend to use them wisely, and they try to find a cause to strike a juror, if possible, rather than wasting a peremptory strike. As individual jurors are struck from the jury box, new jurors are led up to take their places. By the end of the voir dire process, there should be 14 impartial jurors selected by mutual agreement between lawyers and the judge.