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Massachusetts SJC decision will promote the goal of all voices being heard in the jury room by lowering the bar to show Juror was excluded based on Race

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made it easier for defendant to show race improperly played a role in prosecutors using a peremptory challenge on a juror by eliminating the requirement that a defendant show a pattern of conduct in excluding minority jurors.  Prosecutors no longer get a free opportunity to strike one juror based on race because other were kept on the jury.  This is an important victory preserving the right to a fair trial and making sure all voices are heard in the jury room.    The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court changed the standard for challenging peremptory strikes in Massachusetts state court. The Supreme Judicial Court has adopted the standard of Batson v. Kentucky, “retiring” the language of Commonwealth v. Soares.

            The defendant in Commonwealth v. Sanchez challenged the prosecution’s peremptory strike in which a nineteen year old African American was removed from the jury. The trial judge upheld the peremptory strike. The defendant appealed. After losing his state appeal, the defendant applied for federal habeas corpus relief. There, the judge noted that the Massachusetts standard for challenging peremptory strikes in Soares was harder for defendants to meet than Batson. Still, defendant was denied habeas relief. Defendant then moved for a new trial in state court, which was granted. The Commonwealth appealed.

A Pattern of Discrimination is no longer required when challenging Race Based use of Peremptory Challenges

            On appeal the Supreme Judicial Court took the opportunity to review the  standard for challenging peremptory strikes. Previously, under Soares, the defendant had to show  a pattern of conduct has developed whereby several prospective jurors who have been challenged peremptorily are members of a discrete group and there is a likelihood they are being excluded from the jury solely by reason of their group membership. The burden would then be on the prosecution to show a group-neutral reason for the peremptory strike. Under the new rule announced in Sanchez, the defendant need only show that “the totality of the relevant facts gives rise to an inference of discriminatory purpose.”After this showing is made, as before it falls to the prosecution to show a group-neutral reason for the peremptory strike. This standard is the same as the standard the United States Supreme Court announced in Batson.

What Factors will the Court consider in determining if there is an inference of discrimination 

            The Supreme Judicial Court also listed factors for courts to consider in determining if an inference of discriminatory purpose is warranted:

-the number and percentage of group members who have been excluded from jury service due to the exercise of a peremptory challenge

-any evidence of disparate questioning or investigation of prospective jurors

– any similarities and differences between excluded jurors and those, not members of the protected group, who have not been challenged (for example, age, educational level, occupation, or previous interactions with the criminal justice system)

-whether the defendant or the victim are members of the same protected group

-the composition of the seated jury

This list of factors is neither mandatory nor exhaustive. Courts must consider all relevant circumstances.

Prosecutor no longer get to Strike one juror because of Race if other Minority Jurors were not excluded

            Massachusetts now uses the federal standard for challenging peremptory strikes. Now, rather than show that it is “likely” that potential jurors were excluded solely be reason of their group membership, defendants must only show that the totality of circumstances gives rise to an inference that a potential juror was so excluded. As listed above, many factors can give rise to such an inference. The Supreme Judicial Court noted that making this showing is “not an onerous task.” In addition, defendants no longer have to show a pattern of conduct. While the Supreme Judicial Court had in the past ruled that a single peremptory challenge can constitute a pattern they acknowledged the prior rule had caused confusion for judges and litigants.

            Under this new standard, it is now easier for defendants in Massachusetts to challenge peremptory strikes. Rather than having to show any sort of pattern, and having to show that it is “likely” that potential jurors were excluded due to group membership, they only have to show that there are factors giving rise to an inference that a juror was excluded due to group membership. This gives rise to a multifacated inquiry, during which the prosecution must show a group neutral reason for the peremptory strike. It should also be noted that two justices of the Supreme Judicial Court wrote separate concurrences, in which they stated that they would be open to abolishing the requirement that the trial court first find anyevidence of discrimination before requiring the prosecution to show a group-neutral reason for their peremptory strike if the defendant objects. It is possible that it will soon get even easier to challenge peremptory strikes in Massachusetts.

The SJC decision was an important victor for ensuring that all voices are heard in the jury deliberation room.  Prosecutors should not be able to exclude a juror based on race merely because other minority jurors were not excluded.  This decision indicates that any use of a peremptory challenge based on race is prohibited by the Constitution.

To read the decision in Sanchez you can follow this link from Justia.

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