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Massachusetts SJC to decide if juror who states justice system is unfair to black Americans can be excluded for cause

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will address a case that will have an important impact on the way juries are formulated in Massachusetts.  The case is Commonwealth v. Quinton Williams, where a judge allowed the prosecutor to excuse for cause a juror that stated that Black American are treated unfairly by the judicial system.  The SJC allowed for direct appellate review in the case.

  The case was a drug distribution charge out of the Brockton District Court.    The juror answered the judge’s question as follows after the judge asked if the juror has an bias in the case. The juror responded as follows:  

I work with low-income youth in a school setting; I work a lot with teenagers who are convicted of drug crimes.  And frankly, I think the system is rigged against young African Americans.  The juror said that the views could be put from the juror’s mind after asked by the judge.  The juror indicated that the opinion would not impact the ability to be fair and impartial.  

The prosecutor moved to exclude the juror for cause.  The defense counsel objected, agreeing that having more knowledge of racial disparity should not be a grounds to excuse a juror for cause.  

In its brief to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the defense argued that the error in not excusing the juror for cause, essentially gave the prosecutor and additional preemptory challenge and a greater right to control the composition of the jury.  

Massachusetts judges are given wide discretion in excusing jurors for cause under the case law.  However, Courts have overturned conviction when judges overstep their bounds in excusing a juror for cause.  

The defense argued that since jurors are told to bring their collective experience to the court room, that it is a severe prejudice to the defendant to excuse a juror because that juror understands racial disparity.  The Court when instructing a jury repeatedly tells the jury to draw on their life experience and common sense when arriving at a verdict.   

The defense argued that the juror should not be excluded because she honestly stated she could not put her experience aside, because the Court states that jurors are not to leave their life experience at home.  The juror did not indicate any bias in favor of either side; and the juror did not indicate that her experience would preclude her from rendering a fair verdict.  

The defense argued in its brief that it is troubling that the court would exclude the juror for stating that the criminal justice system is unfair to young black men.  The defense argued that the statement is closer to fact than opinion and has been acknowledge by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  The defense pointed to a study by Chief Justice Gant to look at why the incarnation rate for black men is eight times higher than for whites.  

The defense argued that the exclusion of this juror raises further important Constitutional concerns that if everyone who thinks the criminal justice system is unfair to black Americans was excluded, it would exclude the majority of black Americans from jury service.  Further, the defense found that it would violate a tenant of Article 12 that the jury represents the cross section of the community. 

The defense next addressed the remedy that should be imposed when a challenge for cause is improperly allowed in favor of the prosecutor.  

When the judge improperly allows a challenge for cause, the prosecutor is essentially given an additional preemptory challenge and a greater ability to control the composition of the jury.  The defendant argued that the court should presume prejudice in this case. 

I would expect the court to agree with the defense that prejudice is presumed when the prosecutor is improperly allowed a challenge for cause.  I think the court will find the challenge for cause should not have been allowed.  One interesting issue is the record is not entirely clear in terms of the juror’s response.  

The judge asked a confusing question to which the juror answered probably.  It would be interesting to see how the court determines whose burden is to have a clear record of bias of a juror.  I would expect the SJC to find that when exercising a challenge the burden is on the Commonwealth to show bias clearly from the record.  Based on the responses, there was nothing in the response that would indicate the juror had an bias based on her life experience.

To see the filings in the case you can visit the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court website; you can also read the petition for direct appellate review here.

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