The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that jurors can perform impartially in cases involving criminal charges against an African-American man even if they feel the justice system as a whole is biased against young African-American men.
In a case involving the trial of a man in Brockton on cocaine charges, the court issued a new guideline for trial judges to follow in questioning prospective jurors for possible bias, on the theory that jurors do not have be a complete tabula rasa with no experiences or beliefs to serve impartially: Judges conducting interviews of prospective jurors have to get very detailed in questioning of jurors they feel might be unable to hear and decide a case in an impartial manner because they can't set aside deeply held beliefs.
The ruling did not, however, help the African-American man who appealed his conviction and one-year jail sentence for cocaine possession: The court held that Quinton Williams did not show that the jurors in his trial were biased against him and ruled he still got a fair trial.
Through his attorneys, Williams argued that in dismissing a juror who felt "the system is rigged against young African American males," the judge in his case made it harder for him to get a jury of his peers, by essentially barring one group of people in the community from serving on the jury. His trial attorney had objected when the judge decided to dismiss the potential juror.
The state's highest court, however, said that Williams was unable to show that the jurors who were chosen for his trial were somehow biased against him or impartial, and that the judge, even though he should have continued questioning the prospective juror in more detail, dismissed the woman because of her beliefs that were directly related to the case, not because she was a member of a particular group in the community.
Following a voir dire discussion with the woman, the judge agreed with prosecutors to dismiss her because she hesitated at a couple of points when he asked if she felt she could still hear the evidence and fairly assess its meaning.
The SJC recited the objection:
I mean there -- there's -- the drug -- the issues regarding the mass incarceration of young African American males has been all over the news. Everybody has read about it. This is -- she has a little more information, but she did say she could be impartial.
And by the way, he's not a juvenile. He's an adult.
The judge replied:
Yeah. But he's a youthful looking guy, and she says she's going to have trouble. She hesitated quite a bit, Counsel, and I -- I -- I find on the record that she really struggled with it.
"She said I'll try to and then that --
I'm going to let her go for cause.
The SJC pondered this:
We agree that holding particular beliefs about how African-American men are treated in the criminal justice system should not be automatically disqualifying. See Mason v. United States, 170 A.3d 182, 187 (D.C. 2017). However, that is not what happened here. The judge undertook to determine whether, given her opinion about the criminal justice system, the prospective juror 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. As discussed infra, a judge in this situation should focus not on a prospective juror's ability to put aside his or her beliefs formed as a result of life experiences, but rather on whether that juror, given his or her life experiences and resulting beliefs, is able to listen to the evidence and apply the law as provided by the judge.
The court then concluded:
A judge's discretion in this realm, although broad, is rooted in determining a prospective juror's impartiality based on the juror's answers in a sufficiently thorough voir dire. Because the voir dire of the prospective juror here did not address whether she could fairly evaluate the evidence and apply the law given her belief regarding the justice system, the judge's assessment of her ability to be a fair and impartial juror was incomplete. However, because we conclude that the defendant was not prejudiced as a result, we affirm [the verdict].
The court added:
Although the prospective juror indicated that, due to experiences she had, she believed that the "system is rigged against young African American males," and that this belief was not one that she could "put aside," she did not express any opinions having to do with the defendant or the case about to be tried. Nevertheless, the record here indicates that the judge required the prospective juror to "put aside" her firmly held beliefs shaped by her life experiences in order to serve, and excused her because her experiences would cause her to "look at [the case] differently."
Every prospective juror comes with his or her own thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs, and experiences that may, or may not, affect how he or she "looks" at a case. Indeed, this court has acknowledged on multiple occasions that jurors do not approach their duties with a tabula rasa. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Mutina, 366 Mass. 810, 817-818 (1975) ("Jurors do not come to their temporary judicial service as sterile intellectual mechanisms purged of all those subconscious factors which have formed their characters and temperaments such as racial or ethnic background, sex, economic status, intellectual capacity, family status, religious persuasion, political leanings, educational attainment, moral convictions, employment experience, military service or their individual appreciations of the social problems of the moment"); Ricard, 355 Mass. at 512 ("Every individual has impressions and beliefs, likes and dislikes").
It would neither be possible nor desirable to select a jury whose members did not bring their life experiences to the court room and to the jury deliberation 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. For that reason a trial judge must take care to determine whether such an opinion would affect a prospective juror's ability to be impartial.