Newark, NJ – Even before federal prosecutors indicted two former aides to Gov. Chris Christie in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal last year, the case had already received more than a year of intense media coverage as each new detail emerged about the alleged conspiracy.
This week, attorneys will begin the process of finding 12 New Jersey residents who can — or who will say they can — impartially consider the evidence against the two at a scheduled September trial.
Attorneys are scheduled to submit proposed juror questions this week. Former Christie aide Bridget Kelly and former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive Bill Baroni are charged with wire fraud and civil rights violations for allegedly purposely causing traffic jams for four days to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse Republican Christie.
The scandal followed Christie on his ultimately failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination, further reducing the chances of finding a dozen New Jersey citizens who hadn’t heard about the case.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Brian Neary, a criminal defense attorney who also teaches law classes at Rutgers and Notre Dame universities.
“If someone hasn’t heard about the case, they’re not a good juror because they’ve probably been living under a rock,” Neary said. “You just want to make sure what they’ve heard about it doesn’t affect their ability to be impartial.”
Therein lies the rub, of course. Absent the ability to read minds, attorneys must rely on potential jurors’ responses to questions during voir dire— translated from the Latin as “to speak the truth” — to gauge any signs of bias.
That can be tricky since most people don’t want to admit they can’t set aside their personal opinions and be impartial, according to Mykol Hamilton, a psychology professor at Centre College in Kentucky who has done several studies on juror behavior.
If prospective jurors are questioned in a judge’s chambers, Hamilton said, that can increase the pressure.
“If you’re sitting in a little room with two to three attorneys on one side, two to three on the other side, the defendant, and the judge is staring at you and you’re being videotaped and they’re saying, ‘Do you think you’d be a good juror,’ there’s no way you’re going to get a lot of people admitting their biases,” she said.
In one study, Hamilton and her colleagues found more than twice as many people admitted potential bias when asked if they “might have trouble” putting aside their personal opinions, than did people who were asked if they “would be able to.”
Defense attorneys and government prosecutors will submit questions for voir dire this week, and the judge will make a final determination on which ones can be used. None of the attorneys commented last week.
What neither side wants, Neary said, is “an outlier who comes in with his own agenda.”
That can be easier said than done, according to Mark Berman, a former federal prosecutor who now works as a criminal defense lawyer.
“The universe largely is divided among people who never want to serve on a jury under any circumstances and those who very much want to serve on a jury, particularly in a high-profile case, and therefore try to give answers they believe all of the attorneys want to hear,” Berman said. “It can be a challenge to weed out those overeager types.”