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SJC Lays out Procedure for Determining Whether Prospective Juror Who Believes System is Rigged Can be Impartial and Serve on Jury

balance-1172786-300x204In Commonwealth v. Williams, the Supreme Judicial Court set forth the proper procedure for a judge to follow in determining whether a prospective juror — who discloses a belief or opinion based on his or her life experiences — can nonetheless impartially evaluate the evidence and apply the law in the case to be tried.

The background was as follows. “During jury selection and [voir dire for the African-American defendant’s trial on a drug charge,] the judge asked the entire venire whether ‘there [was] anything about the subject matter or your views about the subject matter that would affect your ability to be fair and impartial in deciding the case?’” A prospective juror answered in the affirmative. In the ensuing voir dire at sidebar, she stated her opinion, based on her work with low income teenagers “‘convicted of drug crimes,’” “that ‘the system is rigged against young African American males.’ The judge asked questions in an attempt to determine whether the prospective juror could be impartial.” The first question was: “‘You think that belief might interfere with your ability to be fair and impartial?’ The prospective juror responded, ‘I don’t think so.’” The judge then asked, “‘You … think you can put aside that opinion and bias –’ He did not get a chance to finish the question because the prospective juror interrupted him, stating that she did not think that she could put ‘it’ aside, and that ‘it’ was ‘the lens that [she viewed] the world through, but [she thought she could] listen to the evidence’” in an unbiased manner. The judge then said, “‘All right. But you’re going to have to be able to put that out of your mind and look at only the evidence.’ When the judge asked her, ‘Do you think you can do that?’ the prospective juror responded, ‘I think so.’ Finally the judge asked: ‘You think … your experiences with … people in that type of a situation is going to have you look at it differently,’ implying that the prospective juror could not take her life experiences into account as a juror. After the juror responded, ‘Probably,’ the judge excused her for cause” over the defendant’s objection. At “the end of jury selection, the Commonwealth and the defendant each had one remaining peremptory challenge. Ultimately, the jury found the defendant guilty.” On appeal, the defendant argued “that it was error to dismiss the prospective juror for cause because neither her work experience nor her belief that the criminal justice system is unfair to African-American men rendered her unfit to serve.”

In its decision, the SJC noted that its “jurisprudence is somewhat muddled regarding the proper procedure for determining impartiality when a prospective juror expresses any preconceived opinions” “based on his or her life experiences or belief system,” as distinct from opinions “regarding the case to be tried.” “Nonetheless, there is an important difference between the two: asking a prospective juror to put aside his or her preconceived notions about the case to be tried is entirely appropriate (and indeed necessary); however, asking him or her to put aside opinions formed based on his or her life experiences or belief system is not.” “It would neither be possible nor desirable to select a jury whose members did not bring their life experiences to the court room…. Thus, a prospective juror may not be excused for cause merely because he or she believes that African-American males receive disparate treatment in the criminal justice system.” “[A]n otherwise qualified prospective juror should only be excused for cause if, given his or her experiences and resulting beliefs, the judge concludes that the prospective juror is unable to fairly evaluate the evidence presented and properly apply the law.”

In this case, stated the Court, “[t]he judge undertook to determine whether, given [the prospective juror’s] opinion about the criminal justice system, [she] could nevertheless be an impartial juror in the trial of an African-American man. However, the voir dire ultimately was incomplete because the judge did not inquire further to determine whether, given the prospective juror’s beliefs based on her life experiences, she nevertheless could fairly evaluate the evidence and follow the law. Instead, the judge decided that the prospective juror was not able to be impartial because she expressed uncertainty about being able to ‘put aside’ her beliefs and experiences and because she acknowledged that she would look at the case ‘differently’ due to her experiences.” Ultimately, the Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction on the grounds that the incomplete voir dire of the prospective juror did not prejudice the defendant. The Court noted that “the Commonwealth completed jury selection with a peremptory challenge left available to use (and which could have been used on the prospective juror had she not been excused for cause). Moreover, the defendant [did] not argue[] that any member of the jury that ultimately convicted him was biased.”

If you or a loved one is charged with a crime and intends to exercise your right to a jury trial, it is of critical importance that you have a skilled and experienced attorney by your side to select the best jury possible for your case and to flesh out any potential biases jurors might have that would impact their ability to fairly and impartially hear the evidence. Attorney Daniel Cappetta has successfully taken many cases to trial and is well versed in the jury selection process and all new developments in the law related to jury selection.  Put his expertise to work for you.

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