Focus Groups in Criminal Trials

Planning a viable defense in a criminal case can be a daunting task. A criminal defense attorney can plan his or her defense theories but can’t always be sure how receptive a jury will be to them. One way to find out how receptive a jury will be is by using a focus group.

Focus groups are used all the time by civil attorneys as they prepare for trial. They aren’t used as frequently in criminal cases primarily due to cost. They can be quite expensive. A focus group is almost always run by a professional jury consultant.

The jury consultant first determines where the focus group will be held. Usually it is in the jurisdiction where the trial is going to be held. If the jurisdiction is a small one then the a different jurisdiction will be chosen that has similar demographics. The consultant will use varies services to bring in jurors who will similar attitudes and beliefs as the jurors who will be called down to the courthouse to hear the case.

The defense attorneys prepare a case presentation for focus group. Both prosecution and defense cases are presented. The goal is not to win over the jurors as in a trial but to test different defensive theories to see how responsive the focus group is. In doing this the defense team learns what arguments and theories will have traction with a jury and which ones don’t. I was very skeptical the first time I participated in a focus group. I was made a believer when we followed the game plan developed at the focus group and our real jury returned three not guilty verdicts.

If you know a criminal case is going to go to trial and your client has the funds I would recommend a focus group. The information you can learn can make the difference between a guilty verdict and an acquittal.

Change of Venue in Texas

Extensive prejudicial pretrial publicity can can create tremendous problems for a defendant. One tool the courts use to assure a fair trial in these situations is a change of venue. In determining whether a defendant is entitled to a change of venue when in there is prejudicial pretrial publicity the trial court decides whether the defendant can receive a trial by an impartial jury free from outside influences or whether there is a likelihood that the pretrial publicity would prevent a fair trial.

There are seven factors courts consider when ascertaining whether outside influences affecting the publicity will favor a ruling for a change of venue.

  1. The nature of pretrial publicity and the particular degree to which it has circulated in the community
  2. The connection of government officials with the release of publicity
  3. The length of time between the dissemination of publicity and the trial
  4. The severity and notoriety of the offense
  5. The area from which the jury is to be drawn
  6. Other events occurring in the community which either affect or reflect the attitude of the community or individual jurors toward the defendant
  7. Any factors likely to affect the candor and veracity of prospective jurors on voir dire

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