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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reviews racial bias in jury selection in Commonwealth v. Carter

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decides Juror Discrimination Case 

During jury selection, attorneys are allowed to object to a proposed juror without giving a reason for the objection. This is called a peremptory challenge. However, attorneys throughout history have used peremptory challenges to strike jurors based on racial stereotypes. In the 1986 case of Batson v. Kentucky, the United States Supreme Court held that a prosecutor cannot use peremptory challenges to exclude jurors solely on the basis of race. 

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held Commonwealth v. Carter that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial judge not to require the prosecution to provide a race-neutral reason for its challenge of at least one Black juror. 

What happened in the Carter case? 

In February of 2007, Rashawn Hills was shot and wounded. Defendant Carter was present at the time but could not identify the shooter. Defendant Pickney was a friend of Hills and Carter. Carter and Pickney believed a gang known as the Highland Street Kids was behind the shooting. The pair wanted to retaliate and get revenge for Hills’s injury. 

The victim, Cedric Steele, was shopping one day and accidentally locked his keys in his car. While he was trying to get into his locked car, gunfire erupted. After the shooting, witnesses saw Carter running with a silver handgun. As he ran, he hid his gloves and hoodie under a car. Pickney and his girlfriend picked up Carter after the shooting and served as his getaway vehicle. Defendants were convicted of murder in the first degree and were sentenced by a jury in a joint trial. 

During the jury selection phase of the trial, the judge relied on the racial composition of the then seated jury and concluded that the defendants could not establish the necessary prima facie case of racial discrimination requiring the prosecutor to account for striking four Black jurors. The defendants contend that this is abuse of discretion. 

According to Batson in determining whether a prima facie case of discriminatory purpose has been established, a judge may consider all relevant circumstances. The state argues that the judge did look at all the relevant circumstances because she tracked the race and gender of each challenged juror, and there were Black jury members. However, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts disagreed. 

The SJC reasoned that although the racial composition of the seated jurors, is only one of many factors that must be assessed in context. In Massachusetts, judges are cautioned not to rely heavily on composition as the bare fact that some members of a protected group were seated on a jury does not protect future peremptory challenges from constitutional scrutiny. Placing too much weight on the racial makeup of a jury sends a signal to prosecutors that they can get away with discrimination against some Black jurors, so long as the prosecutor does not discriminate against all potential jurors who are Black. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that this error was detrimental to the case, that the defendants’ convictions were vacated and the cases were sent back down to the trial court to ensure a fair trial. 

Further, Defendant challenged the jury selection based on sexual orientation. In addition to race, it is impermissible to strike jurors on the basis of sexual orientation. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have faced discrimination and hardships both historically and in modern times. Because of the historical unfair treatment of this community, LGBTQ+ people are protected by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court in this case recognized that sexual orientation is a protected class under Batson. However, the court did not agree that this strike was improper because there simply was not enough evidence to establish that this prospective juror in question was in fact gay. Unlike race, sexual orientation is not as apperient, making this a difficult burden to prove.

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