What figures to be a tedious process of picking a jury to hear the Aaron Hernandez murder case began on Friday in Fall River Superior Court.
Hernandez, a former standout tight end for the New England Patriots, has been charged with murder and firearms offenses related to the fatal shooting of his former friend Odin Lloyd. The Commonwealth has hinted that Hernandez told Lloyd that he killed two men following an altercation at a Boston nightclub and later regretted sharing the information with him. Lloyd’s body was found in a North Attleboro industrial park. Within days, the police obtained a warrant to search Hernandez’s nearby home. Hernandez was arrested shortly thereafter and has been held without bail pending trial. While this case was pending, a Suffolk County grand jury indicted Hernandez for two counts of murder related to the killings of the men outside the nightclub.
According to media reports, the superior court judge presiding over the current case plans to select 18 jurors to hear the case. Twelve of the jurors will deliberate and the remaining jurors will serve as alternates. In a typical superior court case, 16 total jurors are selected. However, because of the intense media interest in this case, there is a fear that outside influences will cause problems that will require a larger number of potential jurors who will be ready to deliberate. More than 300 potential jurors reported to Fall River Superior Court on Friday to answer jury questionnaires that will help the attorneys select the jury. More than 700 more potential jurors are expected to appear in court on Monday and Tuesday.
Jury empanelment is a process that happens in every case that is decided by a jury, and the basic procedure is always the same. The judge welcomes the jurors to the courtroom and explains the nature of the charges against the defendant. The defendant and the attorneys are introduced to the potential jurors (to ensure that none of the potential jurors know anyone involved in the trial). The judge then asks the jurors if they understand that the defendant is presumed innocent and that it is the Commonwealth’s burden to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. All of the questions are designed to weed out potential jurors who are unwilling to follow the rules of our judicial system. There are also questions that are asked that relate to the specific charges of the case. For example, in an operating under the influence of alcohol case, potential jurors are typically asked if they have contributed to MADD or SADD (those jurors may be unable to fairly judge the guilt or innocence of a person charged with OUI). In a drug dealing case, potential jurors may be asked if they (or their family members) have ever suffered from a drug addiction (which might cause them to harbor particularly hard feelings toward a dealer).
In the Hernandez case, there is a lengthy questionnaire that deals with the specific facts of his case. Although the questionnaire has not be made public, it likely asks the jurors things like: (1) how closely they follow the Patriots; (2) how closely they have followed the media attention given to the trial; and (3) whether they have heard the allegations related to Hernandez’s possible involvement in the Boston murders. Once all of the questionnaires have been reviewed by the attorneys, the process of actually picking the jurors will begin.
The lawyers will be able to eliminate potential jurors in two ways: with challenges for cause, and with peremptory challenges. Challenges for cause are used to eliminate those jurors who answer that they will not be able to be unbiased for some reason. Therefore, if a potential juror answers that he is a huge football fan and can’t believe Hernandez would commit murder, the prosecutor will challenge him for cause. On the other hand, if a juror testifies that he has religiously followed all of the news coverage and is convinced that Hernandez is guilty, the defense team will challenge him for cause. Peremptory challenges are given to each side (18 each) that allow them to eliminate potential jurors without giving a reason. These challenges may not be used to eliminate potential jurors based on their race, but there are very few other restrictions related to their use.
Selecting a jury in this case will likely take weeks (as opposed to a simple district court case, where a jury can be picked in 20 minutes). Even if Hernandez is acquitted of murdering Lloyd, he still has a long road ahead, as his next stop will be Suffolk Superior Court to address his double murder indictment.