Voir dire with a minority client

We have clients who don’t look like or who are not like most of the Caucasians onour jury panel. This represents a challenge in securing a fair trial for our client. There are many ways to deal with this, but I offer the following from an actual trial involving a civil plaintiff. He spoke broken English, had a full religious beard and was a member of the Sikh religion. He was a naturalized citizen from India where he had been born and wore the religious turban and clothes of a member of the Sikh religion. There a largenumber of Sikh’s in the Seattle area where this case was tried. The religion is over five hundred years old and has a following of some twenty million people worldwide. It is the fifth largest religion. The region has a tolerant attitude towards other religions and teaches equality of women to men. This is how I decided to start the jury selection in the personal injury cases:

  • Parma (Mr. Singh) could I ask you to stand up please. Would you turn so everyone in the room can get a good look at you?
  • Would all of you please take a good look at Mr. Singh? Thank you. You can sit down Parma
  • Let me start by asking all of you, does anyone here personally know someone who wears a turban as part of their religion?
  • He doesn’t like most of the rest of us here does he?
  • He wears the turban and has the beard because he is a member of the Sikh religion. Are there any members of the Sikh religion here today on this panel?
  • He was born in India and is an naturalized citizen of the United States. Anyone here born in India?
  • Anyone here a naturalized citizen?
  • He speaks with a heavy accent and is difficult to understand. Anyone here have an accent and is difficult to understand?
  • It looks like that Parma Singh is not much like the rest of us to me. When I was asked by represent them and met them my first impression was they aren’t like my other clients and I had to take time to fully accept them. Now, I’m not proud of that, but I’m being honest with you. So, I’m wondering if anyone else has that kind of reaction or I am the only one?

After some hesitation, that opened up discussion about these things. This allowed me to encourage discussion by open ended questions like:

  • What’s the best way to deal with feelings like that which are natural?
  • It’s hard to identify with people who come from another culture and don’t look like us, so how do give them a fair trial?
  • Is it OK for people who haveimmigrated to this country and studied to qualify as naturalized citizens to sue an American company for injuries? Why?

    These and other questions which identified the subconscious bias we all have about people who don’t dress like us, talk like us or belong to any religion we know about allowed frank discussion. Attitudes were brought out in the open which helped the jurors accept that they were to apply the law fairly and equally. This isn’t perfect by any means, but is one example of one way to approach the problem.

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