The potential jurors were assured their answers would be seen only by attorneys in the case. The questionnaire prodded them about a variety of topics, some quite personal, including their religion, hobbies, mental health, medications, substance addictions, criminal record, ACLU membership and “your personal view of psychiatrists and psychologists.”
There also were questions that could foreshadow possible defense strategies, including whether “you, a family member or a friend (has) ever been the victim of physical or sexual abuse” or “emotional or mental abuse as a child.”
“If yes,” it said, “please describe.”
And there were questions with questionable relevance, such as “What type of car(s) do you drive?”
There were 11 death penalty related questions, starting with “Do you believe in the death penalty? If yes, why?”
That was followed by more nuanced queries, including one seeking the “statement which best summarizes your general views” about the death penalty. One possible answer was “I am generally opposed to capital punishment except in those very few cases of an unusually brutal, bizarre or extreme nature.”
Question 24 asked if life without parole could be “more appropriate” in some capital murder cases. Question 25 asked if death could me [sic] “more appropriate” in some capital murder cases. Question 26 asked if answers to questions 24 and 25 would change in “the intentional killing of a police officer.”
Question 19 asked “Have your views on the death penalty changed over the years?”Some years ago in a past life, my old firm Paper Trail Research Services performed a service for attorneys in civil cases evaluating potential juror pools overnight using public records and web-based databases, supplementing (and occasionally, contradicting) data listed in the juror questionnaires. Today, in the era of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, I imagine that sort of supplementary data would be even more robust and readily available. Given that some of the questions can indeed be quite personal, it's little wonder not everyone is completely honest when answering them.
Capital murder juries must be "death qualified," meaning anyone who fundamentally disagrees with the death penalty cannot serve. You get a jury of your peers as long as those peers all agree it's okay for the government to kill you.
My personal view of the death penalty amounts to agnosticism. Do I "believe in the death penalty"? I'd have to say "yes," in the sense that, yes, it exists. (I also believe in evolution, and that the earth revolves around the sun.) And I'd have to answer question 19 - whether my views on the topic have changed over time - as "yes." Over the years, I've tried on varying death-penalty positions, pro and con, like so many ill-fitting suits. Neither abolitionism nor overt support seem to fit my own personal sensibilities. If pressed, my answer to nearly every such query on the subject would likely be "it depends," which I doubt would satisfy either side in such a case. Grits actually believes life without parole is a "worse" punishment than death. Everyone dies, but not everyone is locked up in a cage for decades on end with no hope of redemption.
Anyway, I consider one's theoretical views on the topic to have little value as it relates to any particular episode: The question in any given case is not theoretical, it's "should the state kill this guy?" There's also a subtext to that question: "Do you trust the government with life and death decisions?" A lot of people may believe in the death penalty but may also believe the government couldn't find its ass with both hands and a flashlight.
There may be people in the world you think need killing. But with trust in government near all-time lows, that doesn't mean one necessarily trusts the prosecutors or the judge, the competence of defense counsel, or for that matter the legislators who set the parameters for who will die and how those decisions get made, much less the appellate courts reviewing the cases for error. Nor can one necessarily trust that the governor will step in to fix any problems via clemency if and when those folks inevitably screw up.
All that to say: I'm glad I wasn't called for that jury.