Massachusetts Appeals Court Says Defense Attorney’s Attempt to Preclude Minority Juror was Improper

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled a defense attorney’s request to strike a minority juror from hearing a criminal case was improper.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Carvalho.

The defendant was charged in Fall River District Court with several counts of intimidation of a witness and violating a harassment order.  The defendant rented an apartment to the victim and their relationship deteriorated over time.  At some point, the victim went to court and obtained a harassment protection order from a judge.  A harassment protection order is similar to a restraining order.  However, a restraining order is applicable only when the parties are either related, involved in a substantial dating relationship, or live together.  A harassment order does not require these types of relationships between the parties.  Following the issuance of the harassment prevention order, the defendant’s son broke into the victim’s locked storage unit and was arrested.  After his son was taken away by the police, the defendant asked the victim if she felt good about herself and said his life was going to be miserable.  At a later date when the defendant and the victim were both in Fall River District Court, the defendant stared down the victim and told her she had to drop the no-contact order sometime.  Based on these actions, the jury convicted the defendant of two counts of intimidation of a witness and one count of violating a harassment order.

Following his convictions, the defendant appealed on multiple grounds, including that the evidence against him was insufficient to support the jury’s decision.  The Appeals Court rejected that claim along with all of the other defense arguments.  The most interesting appellate issue was whether the trial judge properly refused to allow the defendant’s attorney to exclude a minority from serving on the jury.

At the very beginning of every trial, the parties and the judge select jurors to hear the case.  Potential jurors report to courthouses every day after receiving summonses for jury duty.  The potential jurors fill out a one-page sheet of paper that asks basic biographical information.  The attorneys and the judge refer to these biographies in determining whether a potential juror would be fair and unbiased and able to sit in judgment of the defendant.  If there is something about a potential juror that would not allow him to be fair (for example, if he would automatically believe a police officer instead of a civilian witness), he will not be permitted to sit on the jury.  The legal terminology is a challenge for cause.  There is a second type of challenge called a peremptory challenge.  Each attorney has an opportunity to exclude a certain number of potential jurors for no given reason.  However, a juror cannot be challenged simply because he belongs to a certain class.  Therefore, a potential juror cannot be excluded because of his race.

The problem judges face is determining whether a peremptory challenge is based on an improper consideration of the attorney.  In this case, the defense attorney attempted to use a peremptory challenge against the only minority juror who was seated.  When the prosecutor pointed out there were no other minority jurors, the judge asked the defense attorney the reason for the challenge.  The defense attorneys said only that the defendant decided he didn’t want the potential juror to serve.  The judge determined the peremptory challenge was improper and refused to exclude the juror, and the Appeals Court affirmed.  The Court pointed out again that the challenged juror was the only minority in the jury panel.  It was therefore appropriate for the trial judge to ask the defense attorney for a race-neutral reason for the exclusion, and the trial judge appropriately concluded that the attorney’s rationale was insufficient.

There are many legal scholars who believe peremptory challenges ought to be abolished altogether, as they inevitably lead to unlawful exclusions of otherwise qualified jurors.  This case illustrates the difficulty of determining the propriety of peremptory challenges.