Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules Defendant Improperly Attempted to Rid Jury of Women

In upholding a defendant’s kidnapping conviction yesterday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled the defendant had attempted to unlawfully strike women from serving on his jury.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. William Oberle

The defendant and the victim were involved in a violent, disastrous romantic relationship.  In February of 2014, the defendant beat and strangled the victim, which necessitated her visit to the emergency room for treatment for the bruising to her ears, neck, face, and arm.   The couple stayed together (and lived together) and several months later the defendant again attacked the victim by punching her in the face, legs, and chest.  The defendant then threatened to kill the victim and choked her until she passed out.  When she regained consciousness, the victim fled their apartment and hid in a local business.  When an employee of the business reported to work the following morning, he found the victim and called 911.  Paramedics responded and transported the victim to the hospital, where her injuries were photographed.  Her doctor concluded the injuries were consistent with strangulation and multiple blows to the body and the face.  A jury convicted the defendant of kidnapping and multiple counts of assault and battery, and he appealed.

The defendant’s primary appellate issue related to the trial judge’s restriction of his use of peremptory challenges.  When lawyers for the Commonwealth and the defendant are selecting a jury, they are each entitled to exclude a certain number of jurors without giving any reason.  These challenges to potential jurors are called peremptory challenges.  (Each party can also ask the judge to exclude a limitless number of jurors for good cause – these challenges are reserved for people who, for whatever reason, would not be able to fairly judge the defendant’s guilt or innocence.)  While lawyers are usually not required to state a reason for their use of a peremptory challenge, if there is a pattern of excluding members of a protected class, the judge is entitled to demand an explanation from the challenging attorney.  If the attorney’s explanation is not sufficient, the judge may refuse to allow the attorney to exclude the juror.  In this case, seven of the first eight potential jurors were women and the defense attorney used peremptory challenges to exclude three of them.  After the third peremptory challenge was exercised by the defense, the judge offered his opinion that the defendant was engaging in a pattern of excusing young women from the jury.  When the defendant attempted to strike a fourth woman with a peremptory challenge, the judge ordered the woman to be seated on the jury.

The Massachusetts Declaration of Rights prohibits using race and gender as reasons to exclude potential jurors.  However, age is not considered a “discrete group” warranting protection, and a party is therefore permitted to use peremptory challenges to exclude potential jurors based on their age.  During jury selection, if a party is demonstrating a pattern of excluding members of a discrete group the judge must demand that party offer a “group-neutral” explanation.  The attorney seeking to exercise a peremptory challenge must offer an adequate (specific reason for the particular juror that does not involve membership in the discrete group) and genuine (honest) reason for wanting to strike the potential juror.  If the judge is satisfied the attorney’s explanation is adequate and genuine, the juror may be excluded.  If not, the juror will be seated.  In this case, the trial judge found that the defense attorney did not offer a genuine reason to exclude the potential juror, and the SJC found the judge’s decision was not an abuse of discretion.  Therefore, the female juror challenged by the defendant was properly seated on the jury and his convictions were affirmed.