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The Impact of COVID-19 on the Defendant’s Right to an Impartial Jury

As the COVID-19 virus continues to impact many aspects of Oregon residents’ personal and professional lives, our criminal defense attorneys are acutely concerned about protecting our clients’ right to a fair trial by an impartial jury.

Because the pandemic disproportionately affects older people, women, and people of color, these groups are more likely to seek hardship exemptions for jury service, leaving the jury pool skewed toward younger, white men who may have a preexisting distrust of science, large institutions, and criminal defendants.

Experts warn that during this health crisis, courtrooms across the country — including those throughout Oregon — will struggle to procure a representative cross-section of the community, which is identified as “a jury of one’s peers” and is guaranteed the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Why is the Jury Pool Becoming Skewed During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The Constitution affords everyone of the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers. Accordingly, during normal times, criminal defendants have a jury pool that includes a broad spectrum of the population, reflecting the community’s diversity of race, national origin, and gender.

As the Coronavirus continues, older people, women, and people of color are less likely to serve on juries for several reasons:

  • They may be more likely to be afraid of contracting the virus
  • Older people may be more likely to have pre-existing conditions and be vulnerable to the virus
  • Women may have disproportionately taken on additional caring responsibilities for ailing family members and children who are learning from home
  • Service and retail jobs, sectors where women and minorities are overrepresented, have been devastated by the pandemic, causing widespread personal and professional hardships

The overall concern presented by many criminal defense lawyers, including ours at Mark C. Cogan, P.C., is that jurors who serve during the pandemic might not be the optimal jurors from the defense perspective.

When juries skew too far in one direction, the results can be unfair.

How is the New-Look Jury Pool Likely to Affect Fair Trials for Defendants?

The lack of diversity in respondents, because of their COVID-19 health concerns, may result in jury pools largely comprised of young, white males.

In many cases, these individuals might share some of the following characteristics:

  • Lack of faith in science and experts, translating to skepticism regarding the defense’s expert or scientific evidence
  • Support for law enforcement, translating to favoritism toward the police and antagonism toward the accused
  • Impatience in the legal process, translating to a possible willingness to rush to judgment and disregard the defendant’s constitutional rights

Even with talk of a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, the changing composition of the jury pool could last through 2021 until disproportionately affected groups feel safe enough to participate in civic duties.

Social Distancing, Masks, and Prejudice May Also Adversely Impact the Defendant’s Rights

While our community is afflicted by COVID-19, other factors may also impact how the courtroom is run, and what that means to the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

Some jurors might mistakenly believe that the accused is the one to blame for them being required to serve on a jury, instead of recognizing that the reason that cases proceed to trial is frequently because the prosecution is attempting to impose on the defendant a conviction which may not be justified by the evidence.

Also, social distancing and mask mandates might remove the humanity of a trial from the equation.

Defense attorneys may not be able to speak with, touch, or display trust in their clients as they sit six feet apart during a trial.

Being masked might negate some of the skills that a defense attorney would otherwise have to convey emotion, outrage, or passion toward defending the accused. Likewise, important witnesses who are testifying to the character of the defendant, or speaking to the facts of the case, may not be fully measured by the jury for accuracy or trust while wearing a mask.

The overall effects of COVID-19 on a defendant’s right to a fair trial are far-reaching and must be considered thoroughly before trial, not only in Oregon but throughout the U.S.

Need Help? Call Us Now

If you have been investigated, arrested, or charged with a crime and have questions about the criminal justice process and how our defense attorneys can help, contact our legal professionals at Mark C. Cogan, P.C. today at (503) 827-8092.

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