The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled this week that a potential juror who offered her opinion that the judicial system is rigged against young black men should not have been automatically excluded from serving on a jury deciding the fate of a young black male defendant. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Williams.
The defendant, described in court as a “youthful looking” African-American man, was charged in Brockton District Court with possession of a class B substance with the intent to distribute. A jury found the defendant guilty and he appealed. The sole appellate issue involved the trial judge’s decision to exclude a potential juror from serving on the jury after she expressed her belief that “the system is rigged against young African-American males.”
At the beginning of every trial, the judge and the attorneys work together to select the jury that will decide the case. The jurors are picked out of a pool of citizens who report to the courthouse in response to receiving jury duty cards in the mail. Each juror submits a one-page juror questionnaire sheet that provides his or her biographical information and family history. The questionnaire also asks potential jurors to provide information about their employers and whether they have had previous contact with the judicial system. During the jury selection process in court, the judge asks additional questions of the jurors to allow the parties to understand their basic beliefs about the judicial system. In this case, the judge asked the jury panel a standard question about whether there was anything about the allegations that would prevent the potential jurors from being fair and impartial. One of the jurors told the judge and the jurors that she believed the system was rigged against young African-American males. When questioned by the judge, the potential juror said she did not believe she could put aside her opinion, but expressed confidence that she could listen to the evidence. The judge then spoke privately to the lawyers and the prosecutor asked the judge to prevent the potential juror from sitting on the jury because of her views. The defense attorney objected. The judge ultimately excused the juror “for cause,” which means there is a specific reason why the judge believed the potential juror could not be fair and impartial.
On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a potential juror’s general belief that black men are not treated fairly by the criminal justice system is not grounds to automatically exclude that potential juror from serving on the jury. All potential jurors bring their life experiences with them into the courtroom and there is not an expectation that the jurors should ignore their life experiences when they are serving on juries. When a potential juror expresses that opinion, it is incumbent on the trial judge to ask whether, despite that opinion, the juror would be able to fairly evaluate the evidence and follow the law. In this case, the judge did not ask the appropriate followup question and struck the juror from the panel solely as a result of her opinions generally about black men’s treatment by the judicial system. Accordingly, the potential juror was prematurely kicked off the panel.
Nevertheless, the SJC found the defendant was not prejudiced by the potential juror’s exclusion. Even if the potential juror had not been excluded for cause, the prosecutor could have used a peremptory challenge to kick her off the jury. Each party has a set number of peremptory challenges (challenges that can be used for almost any reason) and the prosecutor here presumably would have used a peremptory if the judge had not excluded the juror for cause. Accordingly, because the defendant was not prejudiced, his conviction will stand.