Massachusetts Appeals Court Concludes Reluctant Juror was Properly Seated on Superior Court Assault Case

In a troubling opinion released today, a divided panel of the Appeals Court voted 2-1 to affirm the serious assault convictions of a man who was convicted by a jury containing a member who repeatedly questioned his ability to be fair and impartial.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Chambers

One evening in June of 2014, two couples (including an off-duty state trooper) were partying at a club in Boston.  The defendant approached one of the woman and asked her to dance.  When she declined, the defendant threw his drink at the two men, hitting the off-duty trooper in the face with his cup.  The defendant was thrown out of the club.  The two couples left about 30 minutes later and the defendant confronted them on the street, producing a knife and stabbing three of the four people.  The defendant went to trial and was convicted of a Suffolk Superior Court jury of three counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and carrying a dangerous weapon (subsequent offense).

The defendant’s primary appellate argument involved the jury selection process.  Picking a jury is supposed to allow both parties to ensure the jurors who eventually render the verdict are going to be fair and impartial.  During the selection process, the judge and the attorneys are permitted to question the potential jurors to discover if they are aware of holding any biases that might impair their ability to be fair.  In this case, one of the potential jurors informed the judge he was a college student at Northeastern and serving as a juror would substantially impact his ability to do his school work.  The trial judge said it wasn’t a good enough reason to excuse him, and he was seated as a juror.  At the end of the trial’s first day, the juror sent a note to the judge saying he was so stressed out that he questioned whether he could make a fair decision regarding the defendant’s guilt or innocence.  The judge told the juror the university would support his service and sent him home for the day.  The following morning, the juror again told the judge he couldn’t promise to give his full attention to the judge’s instructions and the evidence.  The judge insisted the juror was a “perfect candidate” to deliver a just verdict and ordered him to remain on the jury.  Two justices of the Appeals Court concluded the juror’s inconclusive answers were good enough, despite the rule that a juror should state unequivocally that he will be impartial.  The Court ruled, inconceivably, that the juror’s clear answers that he could not guarantee he could be fair and impartial might have simply reflected the juror’s habits of speech.  The trial judge was not required to take the juror at his work, reasoned the Appeals Court, and could instead ignore the juror’s clear answers and determine his obvious statements of impartiality were not true.  Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney asked the trial judge to remove the problematic juror, to no avail.

One justice dissented.  He pointed out that the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled it is generally an abuse of a judge’s discretion to empanel a juror who refuses to unequivocally state he will be impartial.  That didn’t happen in this case, and therefore the trial judge should have excluded the juror from serving.  The dissent correctly argued that the trial judge committed reversible error by seating the admittedly biased juror.

This is a terrible decision by the Appeals Court.  Hopefully the Supreme Judicial Court will agree to consider the case and reverse the Appeals Court’s erroneous decision.