Pattern Voir Dire Questions for attorneys

Voir Dire in Domestic Violence Cases

Pattern Voir DIre Questions for attorneysAlthough domestic violence is a hot topic in the national media right now, these cases are deeply personal and raise highly sensitive issues, about which many jurors will have strong feelings. To help ensure your client a fair trial, you need to unearth these feelings before the jury is seated. However, because of the highly charged nature of these cases, voir dire must be handled with care. Dr. Susan Broome, a trial consultant with more than two decades’ experience working with lawyers and jurors, offers these tips and sample questions for voir dire in a domestic violence trial:

Start With a Written Questionnaire, if the Judge Will Allow it.

Despite the recent spate of media attention and the general public’s heightened awareness of domestic violence, many jurors may find it difficult or embarrassing to talk about this topic in front of other jurors. Some may not be willing to share their feelings or experiences publicly. Jurors likely will be more comfortable and candid answering questions about domestic violence in a written questionnaire. You can then follow up on all written responses in oral voir dire. To increase your chances of obtaining candid responses on these sensitive issues, conduct voir dire individually whenever possible.

Acknowledge the Difficulty of Talking About This Issue.

Jurors may be more willing to open up to you if you begin voir dire by acknowledging that it may be a difficult topic for jurors to discuss. Say, for example, “I know that domestic violence is a sensitive topic, but this case is about domestic violence and it is important that those of you who will sit on this jury are comfortable talking about it.”

Ask About Jurors’ Attitudes Toward Domestic Violence.

To uncover hidden biases, it is critical that you ask prospective jurors about their attitudes toward domestic violence and the parties involved. In the pattern voir dire below, the main questions (in bold-faced type) introduce a topic; the follow-up questions give the prospective juror an opportunity to provide more information.

Pattern Voir Dire Questions

What does the phrase “domestic violence” mean to you?

  • Do harsh words constitute “domestic violence”?
  • How about threatening words? Is that “domestic violence”?
  • What about emotional abuse or hurtful words? Is that “domestic violence”?
  • Does “domestic violence” always leave a visible mark or physical injury?
  • Does pushing or shoving constitute “domestic violence”? What about slapping with an open hand? What about hitting with a fist? The use of weapons?

What are your general feelings about women [men] who claim they have been the victim of domestic violence?

  • Why do you think that/feel that?
  • Why do you think a woman would claim to have been have been the victim of domestic violence? What makes you say that?
  • Is it possible for the victim to still care for the batterer after the abuse is over? Would that make it more likely for her to want to cover-up for his actions?

Some people believe that if a woman claims to have been abused, she must be telling the truth, because there is no reason to lie about this type of allegation. What do you think?

  • Can you think of any reason a woman might be less than truthful in this situation?

What are your general feelings about men [women] who are accused of domestic violence?

  • Why do you think that/feel that?
  • What kind of person is accused of domestic violence? What makes you say that?
  • What makes someone violent? [Probe: stress? work? money problems? jealousy? alcohol? drugs? nagging?]
  • Do any of these factors excuse the use of violence?
  • Do you feel that abusers must have a good reason if they become violent?
  • Do you feel that abusers must be provoked to become violent?

Should women who are accused of domestic violence be treated differently from men accused of the same acts?

  • Why [not]?
  • In what ways should women be treated differently?

Would you more readily believe the testimony of a person who claims she/he was physically or mentally abused or the testimony of the person accused of the abuse? Why?

Some people hold the individual accused of domestic violence completely responsible for the violence, and some people assign some of the responsibility to the accuser. How do you feel? Why?

Some people think that a woman who has been hit by her partner probably deserved/provoked it? What do you think?

Do you believe people are free to make life choices for themselves?

  • Do you believe that people should accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make?
  • Do you feel that your life is more controlled by fate or planning?

Do you believe that if a child sees violence in his home growing up, he is more likely to be violent in his own home as an adult?

  • Why [not]?
  • Does that childhood experience explain the adult behavior?
  • Does it excuse the adult behavior?

Does witnessing violence in the home traumatize children?

  • Why [not]?
  • Do children have to be hit themselves to be traumatized, or is it enough for them to witness others in the family being abused?
  • Does it excuse the adult behavior?

What factors do you think might drive a person to be physically or mentally abusive to his/her significant other/family member? [Probe: family history of violence; a desire to regain power and control; to restore the order or hierarchy of the relationship?]

  • Why do you think that?

Are there times when it would be okay to be physically violent with your spouse/significant other/family member?

  • When would it be okay?
  • Why do you think that?

Are there situations where it would be safe to conclude that someone did or did not do something based on his/her appearance or lifestyle? [Ask this question (and the follow-up questions) about the defendant’s appearance/lifestyle if you think jurors may categorize him/her on the basis of stereotypes.]

  • In what situations might that be okay?
  • Would you be less likely/more likely to believe allegations of domestic violence against [specify characteristics of the defendant]?
  • Do people behave the same behind closed doors as they do in public? Why [not]?

Are people from some racial/ethnic groups more likely to be abusive with family members?

  • Which groups of people?
  • Why do you say that?

What are your general thoughts and feelings about women who stay in abusive relationships?

  • Why would a woman continue to live with [remain in a relationship with/have contact with] a man who is physically abusive [violent] with her?
  • Can you think of any other reasons?
  • Why might it be difficult for a woman to leave?
  • Some people think that a woman who is beaten more than once has only herself to blame. What do you think? Why?

Some people think that if a man becomes physically abusive [violent] with a woman, she probably deserved it. What do you think? Why?

Some people believe a man would never hit a woman unless she provoked it. What do you think?

Have you ever felt like hitting a spouse/ intimate partner [being violent with your spouse/intimate partner]?

  • Under what circumstances? [Probe: in anger? in frustration? out of jealousy?]
  • What stopped you?

Is it ever okay to hit another person?

  • Under what circumstances? [Probe: in anger? in frustration? in self-defense?]

Is it ever okay for a man to hit a woman?

  • Under what circumstances? [Probe: in anger? in frustration? out of jealousy? to teach her a lesson?]

What are your general thoughts and feelings about actions taken in self-defense?

  • What does it mean to you to “act in self-defense”?

Some people think that individuals are responsible for who they are and what they make of themselves. Other people think that family and social factors determine who an individual is and what he or she becomes. What do you think? Why?

Have you ever belonged to, contributed to, or held any position with an organization that takes a position on domestic violence (e.g., a shelter for battered women [and children])?

  • What is the name of the organization?
  • What was the nature of your involvement?
  • When were you involved?
  • How long were you involved?
  • What prompted you to become involved with this organization?

Has anyone close to you ever belonged to, contributed to, or held any position with an organization that takes a position on domestic violence (e.g., a shelter for battered women [and children])?

  • Did you have conversations about this organization?
  • How will those conversations or this person’s experience impact your decision-making in this case?

About the Author

Susan Broome, Ph.D., is a trial consultant in Boston, Massachusetts. She earned her B.A. from Columbia University; her M.A. from Tufts University; and her Ph.D., in Psychology, from Clark University. Dr. Broome is the author of Pattern Voir Dire Questions, from which these materials are excerpted.

Pattern Voir Dire Questions is a collection of more than 1,700 voir dire questions for 26 different types of cases – civil and criminal.  The book covers broad array of topics, from assault and battery to employment discrimination, to pain and suffering, and workplace safety. A Topical Index of Questions gives you an alternative way to find just the right questions for your case and make sure you have covered all the bases.

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