The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld sex convictions against a man despite one potential juror’s inability to state unequivocally that she could be impartial. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Rios.
The allegations against the defendant were horrible. The defendant befriended the victim’s mother after they attended the same church in 2005. The mother did not own a car and the defendant would often drive her around town. By virtue of his friendship with the mother, the defendant came to know the victim and her two siblings. The victim claimed when she was eight and nine years old, the defendant sexually assaulted her on numerous occasions. According to the victim, the defendant touched her vaginal area over her clothes multiple times and anally raped her with his finger and his tongue. He went to trial in Middlesex Superior Court and a jury convicted him of rape of a child by force, indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of 14, and assault with intent to rape a child. The trial judge sentenced the defendant to serve 15 years in state prison followed by 10 years of probation.
The defendant’s primary appellate argument involved the jury selection process. Criminal defendants are entitled to have impartial jurors hear their cases. Impartiality means a potential juror must not be seated if he or she is not prepared to hear the evidence with an open mind. How do the parties know if a potential juror is going to be impartial? Potential jurors are required to complete written juror questionnaires prior to reporting for jury service that contain their biographical information and any interactions they have had with the legal system. But the best information they provide is in response to questions asked of them by the judge (and sometimes the lawyers) once they arrive in court. In this case, one of the potential jurors told the judge and jurors that she had been the victim of a violent crime in Brazil where she had been kidnapped. While she said she would “try” to be impartial, she told the judge she didn’t know how her personal experience as a crime victim would impair her ability to be impartial. When the judge asked the potential juror whether she could put her personal experiences aside and impartially listen to the evidence, the potential juror said she would “do it to the best of my ability.” The potential juror promised two more times to be impartial “to the best of my ability” and the judge was prepared to place her on the jury over the objection of the defendant. The defendant struck her with a peremptory challenge, which is a challenge a party can use to eliminate a limited number of potential jurors, generally without giving a reason. Unfortunately for the defendant, by striking this potential juror, he ran out of peremptory challenges later in the process and was forced to accept another juror who he otherwise would have stricken.
The Appeals Court noted the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that as a general principle, a judge abuses her discretion when she empanels a juror who will not state unequivocally that she will be impartial. The potential juror in this case repeatedly declined to unequivocally state she would be impartial. However, the Appeals Court concluded – incredibly – that when the juror said three times she would try to be impartial “to the best of my ability,” the trial judge could have determined she was simply using a form of speech.
The Appeals Court upheld all but one of the defendant’s convictions. The defendant will likely ask the Supreme Judicial Court to review his case, and hopefully the SJC will reverse this problematic Appeals Court decision.