Augustine: The voices of victims of sexual assault deserve to be heard in juries

Kathryn Augustine, Assistant Opinion Editor

The Sixth Amendment guarantees someone accused of a crime a speedy, public trial with an impartial jury in the state and district where the crime was committed.

To ensure that the jury is not biased against the defendant or victim of the case, jurors are selected through the process of voir dire. Eligible jurors are asked questions to determine whether any biases or conflicts of interest exist. Lawyers are also given the privilege of peremptory challenges and are able to remove jurors without a concrete reason.

Superficially, these measures seem fair and fundamental to upholding the promise of impartiality. In practice, though, cases can be nuanced and these measures can construct another layer of injustice, particularly for the victim.

The potential danger of voir dire and peremptory challenges is strikingly apparent in sexual assault cases.

Defense lawyer Nonnie Shivers explains “What we want to test for is personal experience. We need to look for people whose personal experience makes them unable to take an unbiased look at the case.” Why is there an automatic assumption that experiencing sexual assault equates with a juror being biased against the defendant? That is an unfair generalization. It’s also interesting that there’s a perception that those who haven’t experienced sexual assault are blank slates.

David Garland, who similarly represents defendants in harassment cases, is careful to look into the reading habits of jurors — noting that jurors who frequently read The New Yorker will be well-informed about the #MeToo movement, for instance. But can familiarity with #MeToo confidently indicate a bias against a given defendant? There is a clear distinction between being educated on a topic and being unwilling to consider that a defendant is not guilty.

Naturally, the defense will lean toward dismissing these types of jurors who express familiarity with #MeToo, with experience of sexual violence or with cemented opinions on assault. This is logical — they are fighting to clear the name of their client. I believe the defense has a right to remove jurors who are immovably set on the defendant’s guilt or who insinuate that they are unable to remain fair-minded. That is perfectly in line with the establishment of an impartial jury.

However, I am against the removal of jurors solely on the basis that their knowledge of #MeToo and sexual violence is above average. I am against the removal of jurors solely due to their personal ties to sexual assault.

With the dismissal of these individuals from a jury, there’s the possibility the jury will be solely comprised of individuals vaguely familiar with sexual violence and with no connections to sexual assault. This distance from sexual violence is not a sign of impartiality. This distance introduces bias. Because sexual assault is a crime that was largely ignored and misunderstood until recently, distance in sexual assault cases may mean indifference and an unconscious tendency toward stereotyping or victim-blaming.

Drawing the line between who is biased and unbiased is undoubtedly difficult, especially if that person has experienced any form of sexual assault. However, a jury is meant to be impartial while still representing different voices and points of view. By methodically weeding out individuals with greater awareness of sexual assault or personal experiences, we are silencing important voices — voices that deserve to be heard. And these voices are particularly crucial when a victim is seeking legal validation that their experience of sexual violation matters.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.