State v. Eddington (12/20/11)

This is a criminal case but the point the court makes about jury selection can apply in civil cases as well.

One of the jury panelists in this murder trial was a deputy in the Sheriff’s department that investigated the crime. He therefore knew many of the witnesses. Defendant moved to strike him for cause; the trial judge refused after getting a “yes” to the usual can-you-be-fair-and-impartial question.

The majority of the Court of Appeals thought that wrong but affirmed because the defendant had used a peremptory strike on the deputy, who thus had not helped to decide the case.

The State nevertheless petitioned for review. The Supreme Court took the case but then affirmed the Court of Appeals. So, all anybody wanted to do here was to make a point about jurors.

The criminal rule requires dismissal of prospective jurors who can’t be fair and impartial. But there is also a statute on juror selection, 21-211, that disqualifies, among others, not only those who are biased or prejudiced but also those “interested directly or indirectly in the matter under investigation.” Interest must therefore be something different from bias or prejudice. The court cites cases involving financial interest but then says “an interest under A.R.S. § 21-211(2) is not limited to pecuniary concerns.” The deputy could have an interest because law enforcement is seen as part of the “prosecution team.” But – and this is the part that affects civil cases – a co-worker also might not want to question the credibility of witnesses he has to face at work and he might know things about them or the circumstances of the case that aren’t in the record.

The court says that perhaps the trial judge was right in finding the deputy fair and unbiased. But “if the defendant’s jury had consisted of twelve [such deputies], the public likely — and the defendant undoubtedly — would reasonably perceive that a fair trial had not been had, even if all the jurors had sworn during voir dire that they could be fair and impartial.” That’s a test we bet lawyers will remind trial judges of from now on.

(link to opinion)