Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Awards Convicted Murderer New Trial Following Possible Improprieties During Jury Selection

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday overturned a Dorchester murder conviction, ruling the trial judge failed to properly consider whether the prosecutor was intentionally blocking black men from the jury.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Robertson

The victim was driving with two friends through Dorchester on June 26, 2011, when he made plans to meet the defendant, who owed him money.  The defendant showed up to the meeting with another friend and an argument ensued between the victim and the defendant.  During the course of the argument, the defendant pulled out a gun.  After the defendant’s friend robbed one of the passengers from the victim’s car, the defendant shot at the victim three times.  The victim died shortly after being transported to the hospital.  The defendant then fled to a friend’s house.  The friend said the defendant looked paranoid and scared.  The defendant’s cell phone records corroborated his involvement in the murder.  A Suffolk Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and he appealed.

The Supreme Judicial Court determined the defendant was entitled to a new trial because the trial judge screwed up the jury selection process.  Picking a jury to hear a superior court case can be a tedious process.  Twelve jurors (along with 2-4 alternates) are seated and each party has the right to exclude some of the potential jurors.  A juror can be excluded for one of two reasons.  A challenge for cause is used when it is reasonable to think a potential juror will be biased.  For example, a potential juror who tells the judge he would always believe a police officer over a civilian witness will likely be removed for cause.  A potential juror whose son died of a drug overdose will likely be removed for cause when the defendant is charged with dealing drugs.  The second type of challenge is a peremptory challenge.  Both attorneys have a set number of challenges they can use to exclude potential jurors without typically giving a reason.  However, potential jurors cannot be excluded based on their race or gender.  When an attorney is alleged to have improperly exercised a peremptory challenge, the trial judge is obligated to determine whether the challenge was based on race or other inappropriate criteria.  That didn’t happen in this case.  The prosecutor used peremptory challenges on two black men (the defendant is a black man).  The defense attorney objected.  What should have happened is: (1) the judge needed to determine if the defense attorney made a prima facie case of impropriety (which would have involved the prosecutor engaging in a pattern of excluding black men); (2) if a pattern of discrimination was found, the judge was required to demand the prosecutor provide a race-neutral reason for the challenges; and (3) the judge needed to decide if the prosecutor’s race-neutral reason was adequate and genuine.  In this case, the trial judge found that the defendant failed to establish a prima facie case that the prosecutor was engaging in a pattern of racially discriminatory peremptory challenges.  The judge pointed out that several “people of color” had been seated on the jury already.  However, the SJC has repeatedly ruled that a single peremptory challenge can, by itself, establish a pattern of discrimination.  In this case, the Commonwealth struck the first black man who was about to be seated, and a second man from the Dominican Republic (the partied disagreed about whether he was black or Hispanic).  The SJC said the trial judge had an obligation to order the prosecutor to provide a race-neutral reason for precluding the two challenged jurors, and by failing to do so, the defendant had been prejudiced.  Accordingly, the defendant is entitled to a new trial.

Some legal scholars believe peremptory challenges should be eliminated from the jury selection process.  They invite attorneys (on both sides) to improperly exclude otherwise qualified jurors.  This case illustrates the danger prosecutors face in excluding racial minorities from serving on juries.