The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that defendants accused of murder, rape, and sexual offenses against children are entitled to request individual questioning of potential jurors about their potential racial or ethnic prejudices when the alleged victim is a different race. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Colon.
Late at night on July 22, 2005, the victim and his friend left a party at the victim’s home. They met up with the 21-year-old defendant and made their way toward a set of railroad tracks in Dudley to smoke marijuana. The defendant’s cousin and her friend were also with the group. At some point, the defendant’s cousin began to walk away, but when she turned around she saw the defendant throwing rocks at the victim, who fell to the ground and asked the defendant to “stop.” The defendant then requested a knife and his cousin left as the victim fell to the ground in the fetal position. The next morning, the defendant went to his cousin’s house with splatters of blood on his pants. He told his cousin and his girlfriend that he had killed the victim. He said he used a large rock to hit the victim in the head several times. Meanwhile, the victim’s body was discovered the same day near the railroad tracks. His face was severely bruised, his clothes were covered with blood stains, and a large rock lying nearby was stained with the victim’s blood. DNA analysis confirmed the blood found on the defendant’s pants belonged to the victim. A Worcester County superior court jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.
The most interesting appellate issue involved the trial judge’s refusal to individually question the potential jurors at sidebar about whether they harbored racial biases that would be prejudicial toward the defendant. The defendant is Hispanic and the victim was white. The jury selection process in serious cases in superior court often takes several days and involves several phases. Potential jurors are required to complete written questionnaires and are ordinarily then quizzed in person by the judge in the presence of the attorneys (and the defendant, if he wishes to be present). The in-person questioning by the judge is called individual voir dire. Oftentimes this questioning involves sensitive topics that may cause embarrassment to the potential juror, such as whether he has a history of drug abuse or has been a victim of sexual abuse. In the 1980s, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that in cases where the defendant is charged with enumerated serious crimes, including murder, and the victim is a different race, the trial judge is required to ask the potential jurors during individual voir dire whether they can be fair given that the defendant is of a different race than the victim. This is an important question, because research has established that a non-white defendant who is charged with committing a serious crime against a white victim is often treated much more harshly than a white defendant in a similar case. However, in enacting the rule, the SJC only considered cases where the defendant and the victim were different races (for example, African-American and Caucasian) and not different ethnic backgrounds. Courts have expressed confusion over the years about whether Hispanics and Caucasians are members of different racial groups. Nevertheless, studies have proven that Hispanic defendants, like African-American defendants, have encountered racism in criminal courtrooms. Concluding that a Hispanic defendant charged with murdering a white victim is entitled to be protected from potential racial biases, the Court ruled that from now on, trial judges are required to ask potential jurors during individual voir dire if they would be prejudiced against a Hispanic murder defendant. The rule also applies to defendants accused of rape and sex offenses against children.
Unfortunately for the defendant in this case, the Court determined the trial judge’s refusal to entertain the racial bias question during individual voir dire did not deprive him of a fair trial, and his conviction (and life sentence) was upheld.