The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a man’s convictions for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon after concluding the trial judge improperly excluded prospective jurors who said they would view witnesses who uttered racial slurs in a negative light. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Alves.
The defendant was at a graduation party in Wareham in June of 2013 when his friend was punched in the mouth. The friend told the defendant that he was scared of a group of white men (including the person who had punched him) and the defendant told the white men to leave his friend alone. Several of the white men began shouting at the defendant and calling him a nigger. Later during the party, the defendant allegedly punched one of the white men. The son of the man who was punched yelled, “which one of you fucking niggers hit my father?” The son and the defendant then began fighting and the son was stabbed in the back. The stabbing victim’s friend then asked “which one of you niggers just stabbed my friend?” There was evidence that at least one of the witnesses posted racially-charged comments on Facebook following the stabbing, and at the end of his testimony in court he (the witness) said, “Want to hear an old saying?. . . They say, ‘Niggers come in . . . all colors.'” Of the seven percipient witnesses, five admitted they had (or “might” have) used the word “nigger.” A Plymouth Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of three counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and possession of cocaine. According to news reports, the defendant was sentenced to serve five years in jail followed by a period of probation.
The defendant’s primary appellate argument was that the judge botched the jury selection process, resulting in an all-white jury deciding his fate. The Appeals Court agreed and reversed the defendant’s convictions. During jury empanelment, the judge asked potential jurors if they would be able to fairly and impartially weigh the credibility of a witness who had used a derogatory racial term. Eleven prospective jurors said they would view witnesses who used racial slurs less favorably and the judge excused them from jury service. The defendant objected, pointing out that the only two potential jurors of color were excused because they responded they would view people using racial slurs unfavorably. Following the empanelment process, the defendant was tried before an all-white jury.
The Appeals Court concluded it might be reasonable for a juror to conclude a witness is less credible in his testimony against a black defendant, when the witness had used what “is widely regarded as the most hateful and offensive” racial slur against black people. Such feelings alone are not sufficient to exclude potential jurors from service. Potential jurors must be excluded only when their beliefs about the credibility of witnesses would render them unable to be fair and impartial in assessing the witnesses’ testimony. The Court pointed out that the Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled a potential juror cannot be excluded for believing that African-American men receive disparate treatment in the criminal justice system (which is a fact). A potential juror who has firmly-held beliefs is not automatically unable to consider the evidence impartially.
As a result of the jury selection process in this case, the defendant was denied his right to have jurors drawn from a fair cross section of the community, which is guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions. The case will now be returned to the trial court and the Plymouth District Attorney will need to decide whether to retry the defendant.