While trial courts have wide latitude in controlling the tempo and timing of voir dire, that discretion is not absolute. In People v. Steward (Ct. App. 6/7/2011) (Graffeo, J.) (5-2), the Court of Appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by only permitting five minutes of questioning per round of voir dire.
The case stemmed from a robbery of a well known DJ. Prior to jury selection, the trial judge informed the parties that they would each be given five minutes per round of voir dire. The Defendant objected to the time limit during the first round of jury selection but not during the subsequent rounds.
The relevant statute states, "Each party shall be afforded a fair opportunity to question the prospective jurors as to any unexplored matter affecting their qualifications, but the court shall not permit questioning that is repetitious or irrelevant, or questions as to a juror's knowledge of rules of law." (CPL § 270.15(c)) The court set forth a factors test to be applied in determining whether a particular time limit is reasonable:
It would be impossible to compile an exhaustive list of all the factors that might inform a trial court's determination of this issue. But, in most cases, relevant considerations would include: the number of jurors and alternate jurors to be selected and the number of peremptory challenges available to the parties; the number, nature and seriousness of the pending charges; any notoriety the case may have received in the media or local community; special considerations arising from the legal issues raised in the case, including anticipated defenses such as justification or a plea of not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect; any unique concerns emanating from the identity or characteristics of the defendant, the victim, the witnesses or counsel; and the extent to which the court will examine prospective jurors on relevant topics. Because voir dire is a fluid process and it is not always possible to anticipate the issues that may arise during examination of the venire, it is also incumbent on counsel to advise the court if any temporal limitation imposed relating to juror questioning is proving, in practice, to be unduly restrictive and prejudicial.
The five minutes imposed by the trial court in this case was shorter than the time limits previously upheld by the Court of Appeals. Moreover, the Defendant was facing four serious Class B felony charges as well as other felonies. The victim was a celebrity and many of the prospective jurors had heard of him. The case also raised sensistive questions about self-help, as the victim had pursued his assailants after the robbery was completed.
The question of prejudice was made difficult by the record, which referred to each venireperson only as "prospective juror" and entire groups of prospective jurors were excused sua sponte. "[H]ere, due to peculiarities in the record, it is impossible to contradict the contention that the problematic prospective jurors that counsel was unable to examine ultimately sat on the jury that convicted him of multiple class B violent felonies."
The trial judge was Justice Ruth Pickholz. (LC)