One of the most common questions that we receive as New York criminal defense attorneys is, “How are jury members selected?” The law surrounding jury selection is very complex, as the following recent appellate opinion demonstrates. The central issue in this appeal was whether the lower court committed a reversible error when it did not allow defense counsel to question prospective jurors regarding their opinions about involuntary confessions. The defendant was charged with a number of crimes, including murder. The defendant provided verbal and written statements to the police indicating that he was involved with the shooting. The victim approached the defendant about a missing cell phone, and sometime after that, the defendant came back and threatened him with an ice pick, at which time the defendant pulled out a gun and shot at the victim while he fled. There were two eyewitnesses to the crime in addition to the defendant’s statements.
Before jury selection, the defendant asked if he could question jurors regarding their ability to understand legal rules applicable to involuntary statements. In response, the prosecution indicated that they had not decided whether they were going to offer the defendant’s statements during trial as evidence. As a result, the court denied the defendant’s request to question jurors on this subject. The court reasoned that if the prosecution did not use the statements, and the jury was questioned about their views on involuntary confessions, the jury might then engage in speculation regarding whether such statements existed. The court also concluded that the jurors would be able to understand that involuntary confessions were inadmissible for any purpose.
During trial, the prosecution admitted the defendant’s statements, and the jury ultimately concluded that the defendant was not guilty of murder in the second degree. Instead, they convicted him of manslaughter in the first degree. The defendant appealed, stating that the trial court erred when it failed to allow the defendant to question jurors about involuntary confessions. The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s ruling, and the defendant appealed to the New York Court of Appeal.