The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed a Roxbury man’s murder conviction because the judge did not properly question a prosecutor who removed a black person from serving on the jury. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Jones.
The evidence against the defendant was extraordinarily weak. The victim was shot to death while sitting in the passenger seat of his girlfriend’s car in Roxbury in April of 2012. His girlfriend, who was in the driver’s seat, was also shot but survived. A number of people, including the victim’s girlfriend, provided descriptions of a man who fled the scene. The descriptions were partly inconsistent, but pointed to the defendant’s possible presence. The police obtained cell site location records for the defendant’s phone and learned his phone had been near the scene of the crime at the time of the murder. When confronted by the police, the defendant lied about his whereabouts on the date of the murder. While conceding the evidence against the defendant was “not by any means overwhelming,” the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it was sufficient to allow the jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had been the killer. However, the defendant challenged on appeal the prosecutor’s successful challenge to bar a black woman from serving on the jury. On this point, the SJC agreed the trial judge had not conducted a proper inquiry of the prosecutor. Because the prosecutor’s decision to challenge the juror may have been related to the juror’s race, the defendant is entitled to a new trial.
When lawyers are picking a jury in a criminal trial, they are afforded two types of challenges to potential jurors: challenges for cause and peremptory challenges. If a lawyer thinks there is a reason why a potential juror will not be fair and unbiased, the lawyer will challenge “for cause.” If the judge agrees there is evidence the juror would not be fair and unbiased, the juror will be dismissed. Lawyers have an unlimited number of challenges for cause. Peremptory challenges allow a lawyer to strike a certain number of potential jurors from serving on the jury without having to provide a reason for the exclusion. However, lawyers may not strike potential jurors based on their membership in a protected class (such as race or gender). But how can it be proven that a lawyer is using an unlawful reason to exclude a potential juror from serving? The SJC has outlined a procedure for trial judges to follow when one lawyer accuses another lawyer of inappropriately using race (or membership in another protected class) to challenge jurors. The aggrieved party first objects to the proposed exclusion. If the judge finds the objecting party has made a prima facie showing of an improper challenge, the party seeking to exclude the juror is required to offer a race-neutral explanation for the challenge. The judge is then tasked with determining whether the reason for the challenge is truly race-neutral.
In this case, the prosecutor announced an intention to strike a black woman from the jury. The defendant objected, but the trial judge found he had not established a prima facie case of discrimination because there was already a black woman on the jury. The SJC ruled this was error. The Court pointed out the prosecutor had challenged a disproportionate number of black jurors. Further, there were no obvious (race-neutral) reasons why the stricken juror would not have been acceptable to the prosecutor. Therefore, it was improper for the trial judge to have refused to demand a race-neutral explanation for the challenge from the prosecutor.
Many legal scholars and practitioners believe peremptory challenges should be eliminated from the judicial system. It appears they are often used inappropriately and it’s impossible for judges to effectively police the process.