By H. Michael Steinberg Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer
Introduction – One Myth About Small Town Juries Addressed – Jury Selection
It is a commonly held belief that potential jurors in small towns are more likely to have multiple inherent conflicts of interest and therefore cannot fairly decide a criminal case. The reason… “everyone knows everyone.” The law does not agree. Knowing a trial participant, the accused, an alleged victim, or a witness in a criminal case, does NOT automatically disqualify a potential juror from sitting on a jury.
Small towns have long been considered the epitome of “community.” It is clear that the tight-knit nature of the small town jury pool poses unique challenges when it comes to maintaining impartiality for criminal jury trials. It is not surprising as you select the jury for trial that the potential jurors often consist of individuals who are acquainted with both the defendant and/or the prosecutor, creating obvious potential conflicts of interest that threaten the fairness and integrity of the proceeding.
Because impartiality lies at the core of a just judicial system, ensuring that verdicts are based solely on evidence presented during trial, is key to a fair and just verdict that all citizens will accept. While small communities foster a sense of trust and a strong connectedness among their residents, this very closeness can compromise jurors’ ability to remain objective when faced with familiar faces on the witness stand in the courtroom.
This issue was the subject of a recent case in Gilpin County Colorado. (Blackhawk, Colorado).
A Recent Colorado Case Addresses Small Town Jury “Conflicts”
In the 2023 decision of People v William Allen Davis, the Colorado Court of Appeals court held that a juror who was ‘buddies’ with a key law enforcement witness in the case and who ‘did a lot of stuff’ with that witness, was not biased solely because of that friendship and therefore was allowed to serve on a Gilpin County criminal trial.
The Trial Judge in the Davis case found that the mere fact that the juror and the police officer were next door neighbors who went snowmobiling and did “a lot of (other) stuff together,” did not amount to “good cause” to remove that juror. (see Good Cause Statute at the end of this article – below).
From the decision:
At the outset of the trial, the court explained to both the attorneys and the prospective jurors that because the community in Gilpin County is so small, and because many people know the law enforcement officers, the court cannot dismiss a juror simply because he or she knows one of the law enforcement officers who isn’t testifying.
Instead, the question is:
“[I]s there anything about your relationship with [a witness] that would keep you from hearing that person’s testimony with an open mind?”
As the court predicted, multiple prospective jurors knew some of the witnesses. Some were excused for their inability to be impartial, such as the husband of one of the witnesses.
During voir dire, Juror G explained that he had been the next- door neighbor of one of the witnesses, Undersheriff Bayne, for six years, and that they had gone snowmobiling together.
However, when asked if Bayne’s testimony would…
“automatically get weight over anybody else[‘s],”
Juror G responded,
“Oh no. I guess, it’s just like [another prospective juror] said there, that people have different perspectives on what’s [sic] happens, you know.”
When pressed further about whether Juror G could be…
“fair… listening to [Bayne’s] testimony like anybody else’s,”
Juror G responded,
After voir dire was completed, Davis’s lawyer challenged multiple jurors for cause, including Juror G. The Court granted some of the challenges for cause, but with respect to Juror G and a few others, the Court said,
“I’m going to inquire of others; and depending on their answers, I will either grant or deny the challenge and we then we [sic] can make a complete record later when we have a chance.”
Addressing the prospective jurors again, the Court explained,
“[M]ost people know Undersheriff Bayne so I can’t excuse someone just because they know [him]. Do you think you would be able to hear the undersheriff’s testimony with an open mind and give it whatever weight you think it deserves?”
The Court continued:
“[T]he bottom line for me is I read that instruction on the credibility of witnesses. When the undersheriff testifies, would [you] be able to apply that instruction to his testimony?”
Juror G responded,
Understanding Section 16-10-103(1)(j), C.R.S. Jurors Challenged “For Cause”
The Davis Court held that leaving Juror G on the jury had not violated Davis’ constitutional right to a fair trial.
“Juror G did not express any hesitation about his impartiality.
An attorney’s speculation about a juror’s bias, despite the juror’s clear articulation of his ability to be impartial, is insufficient to remove the juror for cause.”
Some concepts in the law are very clear – “black letter law.” Due process, if it is to mean anything, it requires a fair trial. A fair trial necessarily includes the right to challenge a juror for cause. The right to an impartial jury is foundational to due process and a fair trial and therefore a trial judge must excuse biased or prejudiced persons from the jury.
When an attorney exhausts all of the their “peremptory challenges,”(challenges to a juror serving which require no stated reasons), if there are remaining jurors the attorney wishes to remove, the only tool left to them is challenging the remaining juror or jurors “for cause.”
“Cause” is defined as follows:
(j) The existence of a state of mind in the juror evincing enmity or bias toward the defendant or the state; however, no person summoned as a juror shall be disqualified by reason of a previously formed or expressed opinion with reference to the guilt or innocence of the accused, if the court is satisfied, from the examination of the juror or from other evidence, that he will render an impartial verdict according to the law and the evidence submitted to the jury at the trial;
Cause has been further explained as follows in the Colorado case of People v. Hancock:
… “if a prospective juror is unwilling or unable to accept the basic principles of criminal law and to render a fair and impartial verdict based on the evidence admitted at trial and the court’s instructions.”
A Trial Judge has great discretion in this decision and if that decision on the issue of finding or not finding “cause” to excuse a potential juror is appealed, the Court’s decision will not be reversed unless the decision meets the very high “abuse of discretion” standard.
The reasoning here is based upon the fact that:
“…. the trial court is in the best position to determine a prospective juror’s credibility,
demeanor, and sincerity in explaining his or her state of mind, we defer to the trial court’s ruling on a challenge for cause.
“…. it is recognized that, where a juror’s recorded responses are unclear or ambiguous, ‘only the trial court can assess accurately the juror’s intent from the juror’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and general demeanor.”
The Challenge Of Small Town Juries, Apparent Conflicts Of Interest, And The Importance Of Impartiality
As noted, small town juries often consist of individuals who are, or who could be, acquainted with both the defendant and plaintiff. Conflicts of interest are often uncovered quickly during jury selection and they have the potential of threatening the fairness and integrity of the legal process – which lies at the core of a just judicial system.
Our system of justice is founded on the belief that jury verdicts must be the result of a jury’s analysis of the evidence presented during trial and not based upon personal relationships or other biases that may occur between the witnesses and the jury.
Unlike their counterparts in larger urban areas, small town juries are often intimately familiar with their community’s dynamics, values, and interpersonal relationships, a criminal defense lawyer must have a strategy to identify and neutralize those threats to fairness and justice.
Identifying Potential Conflicts Of Interest In Small Town Jury Selection
Jury selection has been called more of an art than a science. On the other hand an organized approach to identifying potential conflicts of interest during that process is tactically possible. Recognizing potential conflicts early on during jury selection allows legal professionals to make informed decisions at least trying to ensure, as much as possible, that an impartial panel can be chosen for a fair trial in small town communities
Some conflicts include such obvious areas as business relationships, political affiliations, or shared memberships in community organizations, are relatively easy to identify. Others are more difficult.
Identifying Community “Gossip”
In a small town people may be more aware of local events than other types of communities. Local “news” means potential jurors may have preconceived notions or biases based on “community gossip.” Jury selection means carefully questioning potential jurors to try to uncover potential biases based on what they may have “heard” about the case. This includes public opinion – the community may have a strong stance on the alleged crime or the individuals involved. Direct questions must be asked to uncover what’s “going around.”
Identifying Local Reputations
Closely related to local gossip is the reputation of known figures on the community such as those involved with law enforcement. This group may include the prosecutor’s office, the clerk’s office, or even the town’s local attorneys. Local dynamics and relationships make up hidden biases about this group of key figures and it is essential when building your defense strategy to investigate these issues.
Associating a Local Lawyer
If the resources are there, it may be wise to bring onto the team a local lawyer with local connections and local knowledge. This member of the team will be in a better position to navigate and understand the intricacies of the legal process in that town.
Identifying Local Customs and Practices – Prejudices
Every city and town has its own culture – the town’s unique local customs and practices. The defense lawyer must do the homework to find out what they are. This is especially true if the town’s population holds strong beliefs and prejudices local to the population. Like other biases, the most dangerous conflicts are deep seated hatreds which need to be identified and exposed as these have the most potential to destroy the defense.
Identify The Juror’s Ability To Exercise “Juror Independence”
There is a possibility that a juror’s capacity to be impartial could be hindered by the fear of community reaction to their vote or so called “disrupted relationships.” Individuals on a jury may experience pressure to align their verdict with the sentiment of the community rather than the evidence that is presented in court.
Juror’s may be influenced by the defendant’s reputation if the defendant is well-known in the community. To construct an effective defense strategy, it is vital to have a solid understanding of the defendant’s reputation, good and bad, as well as local dynamics and relationships that have interpreted that reputation.
In a small town public opinion may be rather influential. During the course of the trial, the legal team should be ready to respond to any public sentiment that may arise. Facing criminal charges in a small town can present unique challenges and considerations compared to the “big city.” Obtaining a fair trial under these circumstances can be daunting. Everyone will have heard that Jack Smith was charged with felony theft or domestic violence on his wife. What does that mean to the defense?
Summary and Conclusion – Colorado Criminal Jury Trials In Small Town – The Conflicts Of Interest Issue
In conclusion, although a lawyer selecting a jury in a small town may be confronted with particular difficulties that are associated with possible conflicts of interest, our legal system is equipped with tools that can identify and handle these problems – the primary tool is the jury selection process. When it comes to the legal process, the objective is to ensure that the defendant’s rights aggressively protected, regardless of the size or nature of the community where the trial takes place.
The court shall sustain a challenge for cause on one or more of the following grounds:
Absence of any qualification prescribed by statute to render a person competent as a juror;
Relationship within the third degree, by blood, adoption, or marriage, to a defendant or to any attorney of record or attorney engaged in the trial of the case;
Standing in the relation of guardian and ward, employer and employee, landlord and tenant, debtor and creditor, or principal and agent to, or being a member of the household of, or a partner in business with, or surety on any bond or obligation for any defendant;
The juror is or has been a party adverse to the defendant in a civil action or has complained against or been accused by him in a criminal prosecution;
The juror has served on the grand jury which returned the indictment, or on a coroner’s jury which inquired into the death of a person whose death is the subject of the indictment or information, or on any other investigatory body which inquired into the facts of the crime charged;
The juror was a juror at a former trial arising out of the same factual situation or involving the same defendant;
The juror was a juror in a civil action against the defendant arising out of the act charged as a crime;
The juror was a witness to any matter related to the crime or its prosecution;
The juror occupies a fiduciary relationship to the defendant or a person alleged to have been injured by the crime or the person on whose complaint the prosecution was instituted;
The existence of a state of mind in the juror evincing enmity or bias toward the defendant or the state; however, no person summoned as a juror shall be disqualified by reason of a previously formed or expressed opinion with reference to the guilt or innocence of the accused, if the court is satisfied, from the examination of the juror or from other evidence, that he will render an impartial verdict according to the law and the evidence submitted to the jury at the trial;
The juror is a compensated employee of a public law enforcement agency or a public defender’s office.
If any juror knows of anything which would disqualify him as a juror or be a ground for challenge to him for cause, it is his duty to inform the court concerning it whether or not he is specifically asked about it. The jury panel shall be advised of this duty and of the grounds for challenge for cause before any prospective jurors are called to the jury box.
If either party desires to introduce evidence of the incompetency, disqualification, or prejudice of any prospective juror who upon the voir dire examination appears to be qualified, competent, and unprejudiced, such evidence shall be heard, and the competency of the juror shall be determined, by the court, out of the presence of the other jurors, but this action cannot be taken after the jury has been sworn to try the case except upon a motion for mistrial.
Colorado Criminal Law – Colorado Criminal Jury Trials In Small Town – The Conflicts Of Interest Issue
The reader is alerted to the fact that Colorado criminal law, like criminal law in every state and at the Federal level, changes constantly. The article appearing above was accurate at the time it was drafted but it cannot account for changes occurring after it was uploaded.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: H. Michael Steinberg – Email The Author at: email@example.com
A Denver Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer – or call his office at 303-627-7777 during business hours – or call his cell if you cannot wait and need his immediate assistance – please call 720-220-2277.
“A good criminal defense lawyer is someone who devotes themselves to their client’s case from beginning to end, always realizing that this case is the most important thing in that client’s life.”
Putting more than 40 years of Colorado criminal defense experience to work for you.
You should be careful to make a responsible choice in selecting a Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer. We encourage you to “vet” our firm. Over the last 40 years – by focusing ONLY on Colorado criminal law – H. Michael has had the necessary time to commit to the task of constantly updating himself on nearly every area of criminal law, to include Colorado criminal law and procedure and trial and courtroom practice.
H. Michael works hard to get his clients the best possible results in and out of the courtroom. He has written, and continues to write, extensively on Colorado criminal law and he hopes this article helps you in some small way.