UB terrorism expert can discuss jury selection in trial of Boston Marathon bomber

Jury seats in a courtroom.

In Q&A, UB forensic psychologist talks about what attorneys will seek to avoid in jurors

Release Date: January 8, 2015 This content is archived.

Daniel Antonius.

Daniel Antonius, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry, UB

“The Boston Marathon trial will undoubtedly bring out a tremendous level of emotion in a community that, through the media, will have to re-live the horrors of the terror attack again. ”
Daniel Antonius, Assistant professor
Department of Psychiatry

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Daniel Antonius, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry in the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and a forensic psychologist, says that attorneys in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, will be seeking to eliminate potential jurors with an overt emotional connection to the tragic event.

Antonius studies terrorism, violence and aggression. With Samuel J. Sinclair, he co-edited “The Political Psychology of Terrorism Fears” (Oxford University Press, 2013), which examines how emotional responses to terrorism, especially fear, can influence the political process.

Why is it difficult to find jurors for this case?

Given the magnitude of impact the Boston Marathon Bombing had on the community, it will be exceptionally difficult to find jurors that were not, in some capacity, influenced by the event. In the jury selection, the voir dire, I suspect that attorneys from both sides will carefully and systematically examine each potential juror’s biases. I would not be surprised if experts on jury selection, or jury consultants, are brought in to help out.

The key will be for the defense counsel to try to exclude jurors that in some way feel an emotional link to the victims, and for the prosecutors to exclude jurors who show affinity, or hatred, toward the defendant -- in other words, trying to find unbiased jurors.

Potential jurors in this case have been asked to fill out a questionnaire that taps into various areas that may impact jurors. The use of such questionnaires is not that common, but they’re sometimes used in high profile cases where juror bias is a concern. The questionnaires help provide an initial screening of biases among the potential jurors.

Why can strong emotions be grounds for eliminating a potential juror?

During the examination process, the voir dire, it will be important for the relevant court personnel (especially the judge and the attorneys) to look for concerning signs among the potential jurors, such as unwarranted or concerning emotions, cognitions, and behaviors.

This could be the juror who is acting overly stressed, frustrated, or agitated when being questioned about potential biases. These emotions may subconsciously impact the juror’s ability to rationally understand the legal arguments being put forth during the trial, as well as his or her ability to appreciate the complex forensic evidence, or even understand simple instructions and communication within the courtroom that may be crucial to the outcome of the case.

In a worst case scenario, a juror may become so emotionally overwhelmed or stressed during a trial, which results in trouble focusing and concentrating on the details of the case, and eventually leads to memory distortion, or the inability to remember accurately key factors in the case.

What adds even more pressure on the potential jurors in this case is of course the possibility of having to decide whether or not to sentence the defendant to death. So, biases related to the death penalty will come into play as well in the jury selection.

How will the trial itself affect the community?

The Boston Marathon trial will undoubtedly bring out a tremendous level of emotion in a community that, through the media, will have to re-live the horrors of the terror attack again. Also, the question of guilt is less of a question in this case, but whether or not to sentence him to death may become a polarizing issue. The question of mitigating circumstances will come up, and whether his young age or the influence his brother may have had on him and his decision to join the terror attack should be taken into account. It will certainly be interesting to see what forensic mental health evidence will be introduced by the defense counsel and how the prosecutors counteract.

Do trials bring out concerns and anxieties in the community? Are there other examples of this occurring during similar trials?

During the trial in Norway of Anders Breivik, the lone wolf terrorist who killed 77 people in a terror attack in 2011, the forensic mental health evaluation became a sticking point.

Leading up to the trial, public anxieties and opinions were already on full display through the media, with anyone and everyone offering layman and expert opinions. However, after the court-appointed forensic psychiatrists determined that Breivik was suffering from schizophrenia, which in Norway would have resulted in him going to a forensic psychiatric hospital, the public anxieties magnified and there was a public outcry for changes to the legal system and the adjudication process to assure that Breivik would go to prison and receive the punishment the public felt he deserved.

In other words, concerns and anxieties were high among the Norwegian public going into and during the trail. The public outcry likely influenced, at least in part, the court to order another evaluation, in which Breivik’s psychiatric diagnosis was changed and he was eventually sentenced to prison, which seemed to sit better with most Norwegians instead of sentencing him to a forensic psychiatric hospital.

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