Thursday, August 30, 2007


The legal phrase voir dire literally means, “truth say.” In this context, voir comes from an old word in middle French meaning “truth.” (Even though the modern French word voir means “to see.”)

In the American justice system, voir dire refers to the process by which prospective jurors are questioned about their backgrounds and potential biases before being invited to sit on a jury. Today, I experienced voir dire up close and personal. Pardon the length of this blog. (I did want to be an attorney before God called me to preach at age 17, so I am still fascinated by legal issues!)

Here in Smith County, Texas we have Municipal, State, and Federal Courts, so that means that citizens get called up for jury duty on a frequent basis. When I pastored in the Birmingham area for ten years, I was never called for jury duty. But in my 16 ½ years in Tyler, I’ve been called for jury duty at least eight times – including municipal and federal courts. In addition, I served on the Smith County Grand Jury for six months. Most of my experiences for jury duty have been to show up and be dismissed before noon.

Today was another kind of experience. I arrived at the Smith County Courthouse at 8:30am and sat down with about 200 other people. I was happy to see and greet at least a dozen other Green Acres members there (does this count as visitation?)

It was a slow, lengthy process, but after another couple of hours, the clerk of the court announced that three juries were needed that day. I was selected to be a part of a panel of 60 potential jurors for a criminal case, and we were dismissed for lunch and requested to be back in the courtroom by 1:30pm. 59 of us were back at 1:30. One juror had apparently misunderstood the directions and was not present. A Texas Statute requires all of the panel to be present, so officers were dispatched to find the missing juror. That took a little over an hour – and during that time I got to meet the jurors sitting on either side of me and read some of the book I'd brought with me. Throughout the day, I was able to read 120 pages of The Man Who Shook the World, an excellent biography of the Apostle Paul written by John Pollock. (Cambridge-educated Pollock has also written excellence biographies of Hudson Taylor, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Graham)

When our final juror arrived, escorted by the bailiff, we were taken upstairs to another courtroom for voir dire to begin. In keeping with the admonition of the Judge, I won’t reveal any details of the case or any of the names involved in today’s process. I want to just give some general observations about the experience.

We are all asked to stand and respond to an oath to give honest answers to the questions we were asked. We weren’t known by our names, only by the numbers on our juror cards. The attorneys for both sides had detailed profiles of each of us before them. The judge did a great job of condensing three years of law school into about 30 minutes. The judge taught us about the fifth amendment right of every citizen: to remain silent and not incriminate themselves. The judge taught us that in a criminal case the prosecution has the heaviest burden – they must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. The judge talked about the powerful judicial principle called “the presumption of innocence.”

After the law lecture, the judge gave us a “pop quiz.” The judge said, “Suppose I go crazy right now and decide we aren’t going to select 12 jurors, and we’re not going to hear any evidence... we’re just going to let all of you vote now on the defendant. You can vote ‘guilty,’ ‘not guilty,’ or ‘I don’t have enough information to decide.’ How many of you vote, ‘guilty'?” No cards were raised. “How many of you vote ‘not guilty'?” I raised my card with a couple of other jurors. (I had suspected it was a trick question). “And how many of you vote, ‘don’t have enough information to decide?’” The remainder of the cards were lifted.

The judge admitted that it was a trick question, and the only correct answer was, “not guilty.” The judge explained a juror might not ever think they have enough information to decide, but at this stage, the defendant can only be “not guilty.” And so, the judge then gave remedial lecture #2 and we voted again – and this time, every juror lifted their card for “not guilty.” I thought it was a memorable way to teach the doctrine of “presumption of innocence.”

In voir dire, we, the potential jurors are the ones that must “speak truth” when asked specific and sometimes personal questions by the prosecutors and defense attorneys. Again, without going into details, this case involved a felony drug possession charge, and one of the questions the attorneys asked was if anyone among the 60 potential jurors had ever personally (or had someone in their immediate family) arrested and charged with any kind of drug-related charge. I was surprised to see a majority of the cards being raised. At that moment, my pastoral heart skipped a beat, and I was reminded again that we live in a world of struggling, hurting people.

Because policemen often testify in trials such as this, we were asked if there were any of us who had a great respect for law officers and the job they do. I raised my card along with many others. But when the question was asked if anyone resented policemen because of how they or someone in their family had been treated – again, cards went up. I was reminded that we don't all see law enforcement officers the same way.

There were other questions asked and answered. Some of the questions were of such a personal nature that they were set aside for a private audience with the judge and counselors. I was eventually rejected as a juror, but I came out of the courtroom at about 5:00 pm thinking, “this process really works.”

My brain is spinning with more spiritual applications than I have space to share. Spirtually speaking, we’re all "presumed guilty until forgiven" … but I won’t chase that rabbit out of the woodpile. Instead, I want to remind you that it is our privilege to practice voir dire daily. The Bible says, “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Eph. 4:15). We are admonished to be loving and truthful in our relationships with others.

Also, voir dire means that we should be sharing the Truth about Jesus with others. The reason we are redeemed is because someone practiced voir dire with us – they "spoke truth" about Jesus to us. The Bible tells about, “the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the WORD OF TRUTH, the gospel that has come to you” (Col 1:5-6).

So go forth, and carpe diem and voir dire today!