Ask Amy – What are your thoughts on how trial attorneys approaching jury selection in terms of demeanor, tone of questioning, etc.?

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A friend recently performed an effective voir dire in a serious murder case.  She was described as being like a “talk show host” (in the best sense of those words) in terms of creating a forum for honest, gentle exchanges with jurors on the issue of race, and apparently other issues. What are your thoughts on how trial attorneys approaching jury selection in terms of demeanor, tone of questioning, etc.?

Thirty years ago I used to say that “the best way to think about your role in voir dire is to act like Phil Donahue.”  I used to tell my clients, here’s an assignment: look at Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey; that is how you should conduct yourself during voir dire. The key is to bring everyone into the discussion, begin questions with “what are your thoughts or feelings about X?” Ask the rest of the jury if they agree or disagree with the information that was just volunteered and why. This method brings everyone into the conversation.

Jurors often volunteer information that you never would have elicited in “old schoo” voir dire. The key is to keep it open ended and ask for their opinions. People are not shy about giving their opinions because they can’t be right or wrong, it’s just their opinion. (Think of George Bush and the pie eating contest.) Dale Carnegie courses teaches us to listen rather than to speak. The person who is speaking is being judged while the listener is not; he or she is just listening. In regards to demeanor, the idea is for attorneys to act interested, be accepting and understanding. Acceptance and understanding is right out of the textbook on Rogerian psychology, a must read for all my clients.

The tone should be not only accepting but to go one step further and that is to compliment them, reinforce them, tell them “that’s an interesting thought” (even if it’s negative), ask how many agree and disagree and bring everyone into the conversation. Even in a serious murder case, the tone should be the same. Of course you don’t need to make jokes but ask everyone to please share. Look at talk show hosts who talk about serious things (victims of incest, murdered children, etc.) and see how they handle it. That’s how an attorney should compose themselves during voir dire.

 

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