What Questions Can You Ask Prospective Jurors in a Domestic Violence Case?
Everyone charged with a crime in Texas has the right to a trial before an impartial jury. But when the defendant is accused of domestic violence, that can be especially difficult. Domestic violence cases are always emotionally charged affairs, so it is even more important for the courts to screen prospective jurors for any bias that might taint their ultimate verdict.
A recent decision by the Texas First District Court of Appeals here in Houston addressed the question of how far a defendant may go during this screening process. This case, Sandoval v. State, involved a male defendant accused of “family-violence assault enhanced by a prior conviction.” At trial, the jury heard evidence regarding the defendant’s alleged assault of his longtime girlfriend.
The jury did not hear from the alleged victim herself. According to the First District, the girlfriend “did not cooperate with the investigation or prosecution of the case.” She even signed multiple “affidavits of non-prosecution,” effectively written requests that the district attorney not bring charges against the defendant. The district attorney decided to prosecute anyway, relying on other evidence, including the girlfriend’s 911 call on the night of the alleged attack and medical experts who reviewed photographs of the girlfriend’s injuries. The jury also heard from a domestic violence counselor who testified “it is not uncommon for domestic violence victims to request charges be dismissed against the abuser.”
The girlfriend did eventually testify. However, she recanted her prior police reports and stated the defendant did not attack her. Nevertheless, the jury found the defendant guilty. The trial judge sentenced the defendant to four years in prison.
On appeal, the defendant focused on a specific decision made by the trial judge during voir dire–that is, the process of questioning prospective jurors to hear the case. The defendant’s attorney wanted to ask the jurors if they “needed to hear from the victim in order to convict on a family violence case.” The prosecution objected to the question, and the judge sustained that objection.
The First District explained this question was improper because any prospective juror’s answer “would not give rise to a valid challenge for cause.” That is to say, it would not have provided the defense with any legitimate reason to strike a juror based on his or her answer. A more appropriate question would have been, Could a juror convict the defendant “in the absence of the complainant’s testimony even if the State otherwise proved the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Speak with a Houston Domestic Violence Defense Lawyer Today
Jury selection is just one of many stages in the criminal justice process that can significantly affect a defendant’s chance at receiving an acquittal. That is why it is so important to work with an experienced Houston criminal defense lawyer whenever you are accused of domestic violence. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston, or League City, to speak with a member of our legal team today. Call (281) 280-0100 .