The PA Superior Court recently held that masking and social distancing of prospective jurors during the jury selection process does not interfere with the sole purpose of voir dire: The empaneling of a competent, fair, impartial, and unprejudiced jury capable of following the instructions of the trial court.
Mark Andrew Delmonico was convicted by a jury of the charges of delivery of a controlled substance, possession with the intent to deliver a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia and criminal conspiracy. As part of his appeal, he argued that the trial court erred in requiring the prospective jurors to wear masks and socially distance during the jury selection process, otherwise known as voir dire.
Delmonico complained that “[t]he members of the entire venire (jury pool) were required to wear face coverings and were then spread out over a vast distance, far more spread out than is standard practice for voir dire, a minimum of six feet apart, for social distancing purposes.” Further, because of these restrictions, he argued that the trial court was unable to fully examine the prospective jurors’ conduct and demeanor in determining their credibility and fitness to serve, and consequently, he was not ensured the empaneling of a competent, fair, impartial, and unprejudiced jury.
On appeal, the Superior Court noted that “[t]he purpose of voir dire is solely to ensure the empaneling of a competent, fair, impartial, and unprejudiced jury capable of following the instructions of the trial court….Voir dire is not to be utilized as a tool for the attorneys to ascertain the effectiveness of potential trial strategies.”
The appellate court then relied on the trial court’s opinion which concluded that the objective of voir dire was achieved, and that Delmonico was afforded a jury free of bias or prejudice because the trial court was able to observe the jury pool and evaluate the responses provided by each potential juror, despite the masks and social distancing.
The Superior Court saw no indication the trial court was unable to adequately view the prospective jurors, examine their conduct, or perceive any factors indicating an “unsettled frame of mind[.]” Rather, the Superior Court noted that “the trial court indicated in its opinion that it was able to adequately assess the prospective jurors’ answers during voir dire so as to determine, inter alia, whether to disqualify a prospective juror.”
Accordingly, the Superior Court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion as to the scope or form of the voir dire examination and abided by the “essential demands of fairness” required of the jury selection process.