“Can written responses in a juror questionnaire, standing alone, establish a challenge for cause when based upon an inaccurately worded statutory ground for cause?”
Spielbauer was charged with the capital murder of his wife in a highly publicized case. The venire was given a questionnaire after being sworn and qualified by the trial court. One of the questions asked, “If you have heard about this case, based upon what you have heard, have you formed an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of Jeremy Spielbauer as would influence you in finding a verdict[?]” Several potential jurors checked “yes,” and defense counsel moved to strike all of them for cause prior to voir dire. After voir dire of those jurors over defense objection, the trial court again denied the motions on two of them and refused to grant the defense two additional peremptory strikes. Spielbauer was convicted of murder.
The court of appeals reversed. It relied on Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 35.16(a)(10), which says that a potential juror is subject to challenge for cause if “there is established in the mind of the juror such a conclusion as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant as would influence the juror in finding a verdict.” Article 35.16(a)(10) also says that, if the juror is “asked whether, in the juror’s opinion, the conclusion so established will influence the juror’s verdict” and “answers in the affirmative, the juror shall be discharged without further interrogation by either party or the court.” The court of appeals held that the “yes” answer to the questionnaire foreclosed any further questioning. It also held that harm was proven by virtue of preservation.
The State makes four arguments. First, a questionnaire cannot trigger the harsh results of Article 35.16(a)(10) because it is not part of voir dire; it is merely a tool to facilitate voir dire. Second, if it were part of voir dire, strict adherence to the wording of the statute should be required; the questionnaire did not ask the same question made dispositive by the Legislature. Third, assuming the questionnaire sufficiently embraced the statute, both potential jurors answered related questions in a way that contradicted the answer at issue; a trial court has the discretion to resolve these conflicts. Fourth, this discretion must include the ability to question jurors.