The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld convictions against a defendant for motor vehicle crimes, holding that the trial judge properly handled a situation where a juror made a racist joke before jury deliberations began. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Hart.
In January of 2014, a witness saw a man steal his boss’ SUV. A second witness saw the defendant, who looked confused and frightened, carrying grocery bags in the vicinity of the stolen SUV, which had its driver’s side door open. There was nobody else close to the SUV. The police arrived on the scene and arrested the defendant. A Suffolk Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of receiving a stolen motor vehicle (subsequent offense) and negligent operation.
The primary appellate argument addressed whether the trial judge appropriately addressed a situation where one of the jurors made a racist joke in the presence of his fellow jurors during the trial. At the beginning of the third day of the trial, a court officer visited the jury room to greet the jurors. One of the jurors said, “good morning, it’s a good day for a hanging.” The joke could only reasonably be referring to the shameful history of the lynching of African-Americans in this country. Most jurors responded to the joke with disbelief, but there was evidence that at least some of the jurors laughed. While the defendant in this case is African-American, the jury did not include any African-American members (which is relatively common for Massachusetts juries). The court officer informed the judge about the joke, and the juror who made the joke was properly removed by the judge. The judge then individually questioned the remaining jurors to determine whether they had heard the joke and whether they believed they could still impartially decide the case. After satisfying herself that the remaining jurors were impartial, the judge allowed the trial to continue over the objection of the defendant.
Our judicial system has not been immune to racial bias against minority defendants, and the Appeals Court acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. The Court concluded, however, that the trial judge had conducted the appropriate inquiry into the remaining jurors’ ability to be fair and impartial. After questioning the jurors and receiving their assurances that they could fairly judge the case, the judge properly allowed the case to continue and the jury to deliberate and render a verdict. The Appeals Court relied on a 1982 Supreme Judicial Court case that suggested nothing further was required. However, in upholding the verdict, the Appeals Court suggested a “fresh, principled, and rigorous reexamination” of potential effects of racial prejudice on the part of jurors occur. The Court pointed out that the SJC recently updated the procedure trial judges should follow after learning about racially-charged statements made by jurors during deliberations, and encouraged the SJC to provide additional guidance to trial judges who are required to deal with situations where racists are included in jury panels.
It will be interesting to see if the SJC accepts the Appeals Court’s invitation to weigh in on this case. It is intolerable for any criminal defendant to justly believe he is being judged by the color of his skin.