Peter Liang is an ex-police officer with the NYPD. He was convicted in February of manslaughter in the accidental fatal shooting of an unarmed man in a housing project in Brooklyn.
After the verdict was announced, but before Liang was due to be sentenced, media reports claimed that one of the jurors lied to the attorneys in the case. During voir dire – the questioning of potential jurors prior to trail – the juror said that no one in his family had ever been accused of a crime. News reports after the trial disclosed that the juror’s father had once served 7 years in prison for an accidental shooting!
What is voir dire questioning?
The purpose of the voir dire in a jury trial is to uncover potential bias of a prospective juror. An attorney may challenge a juror for cause on various grounds, including that the person is unlikely to be able to render an impartial verdict. Alternatively, an attorney can exercise a “peremptory challenge” and have the person dismissed from the juror pool without giving a reason. The number of peremptory challenges allowed depends upon the severity of the crime charged. In the Liang case, each side would be permitted up to 15 peremptory challenges.
Intentional vs. unintentional falsehoods
The issue raised by defense counsel concerned the fact that if the juror disclosed the information about his father’s criminal history, it would likely have led to a challenge – either peremptory or for cause – to the juror serving on the panel in Liang’s case. And as a member of the jury, he may have been unable or unwilling to render an impartial verdict. Accordingly, they applied to the court to have the guilty verdict vacated.
The judge denied the motion. He found that the juror did not intentionally withhold the information, and that seems to have been the thrust of the judge’s inquiry, i.e., whether the juror was a liar, whether he was just confused about the question, or whether he forgot about his father spending years in prison.
Before looking at the juror’s intent/mistake in the Liang case, we should note that the question of whether or not a person is lying intentionally during voir dire does not necessarily resolve the question of bias. A person may be unable to render an impartial verdict even if he or she makes an honest mistake when answering a question during voir dire.
But assuming an intent to deceive is a requirement before a verdict can be set aside, let’s take a look at the situation in Liang’s case. Intent is gleaned from surrounding circumstances. Were there any facts suggesting that the juror lied intentionally, and that he did not simply forget about his father’s past? Well, we think so. In fact, the same day as the voir dire in Liang’s case, that juror was being questioned by a judge in another case, and he admitted that someone in his family had been arrested. Asking for more proof of intent than that would effectively require defense counsel to get the juror to admit that he lied on purpose.
Did the jury issue affect the outcome for Liang? We obviously can’t answer that question. We do believe, however, that under the circumstances, the decision to uphold the verdict may well have a negative impact on one’s faith in the criminal justice process.
George Vomvolakis Law Offices
275 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016