The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Naiveté – It Never Ceases To Amaze

The case I am about to write about is from the Massachusetts Supreme Court (SJC) Commonwealth v. Quinton K. Williams. 

This SJC case reminded me of the time when I was a young lawyer trying cases in Suffolk Superior Court. (I’ve told this before.) At that time jurors used to be called to serve for a month at a time. During the early days of a month I ran into two guys who I had hung around with growing up. They had both been called for jury duty. One, Bill, told me over coffee that he did not have to hear any evidence. He could tell just by looking at the defendants when there were brought into court that they were guilty. The other, Phil, told me that he would not believe any evidence against any defendant brought into court. He said he didn’t believe anything cops would say.

Both were from the same neighborhood with the same background but they held opposite beliefs: one would vote to convict everyone; one would vote to acquit everyone. Yet each one served on panels that month.  I am sure that either of these men when questioned by a judge as to their ability to sit on a specific case, that is whether they could be impartial despite their belief, they would have answered, and probably did, that it would not interfere with their decision.

In the Williams case the defendant a young African-American was charged with possession of a class B substance, cocaine, with intent to distribute. When questioning jurors, one indicated to the judge she had a bias.  Here’s the discussion between them:

Juror:   “Yeah. I worked with, like, low income youth in a school setting. I worked a lot with people who were convicted of — like teenagers who were convicted of drug crimes.
“And frankly, I think the system is rigged against young African American males.
“I’m happy to serve on the jury trial — on the jury because I think it’s important, but — ”
Judge:   “You think that belief might interfere with your ability to be fair and impartial?”
Juror:   “I don’t think so.”
Judge:   “You — you think you can put aside that opinion and bias —
Juror:    “I don’t think I can put it aside. I think that’s –”
Judge:   “No?”
Juror:    ” — the lens that I view the world through, but I think I can be unbiased — I think I can be — I think I can listen to the evidence.”
Judge:   “All right. But you’re going to have to be able to put that out of your mind and look at only the evidence. Do you think you can do that?”
Juror:  “I think so.”
Judge:   “I have to be assured that you can though. You think you — as — as you sit in there, it might — your experiences with — with people in that type of a situation is going to have you look at it differently?”
Juror:   “Probably.”

The judge then went to counsel and said: “She hesitated quite a bit, Counsel, and I — I — I find on the record that she really struggled with it. She said I’ll try to and then that —
I’m going to let her go for cause..”

The SJC decided the judge erred.

It said:  “beliefs about how African American men are treated in the criminal justice system should not be automatically disqualifying. . . .”  It went on to say a judge must distinguish between “preconceived opinions he or she has regarding the case” and  “an opinion formed based on his or her life experiences or belief system” or world view. The SJC went on:  “she believed that the “system is rigged against young African American males,” and that this belief was not one that she could “put aside,” she did not express any opinions having to do with the defendant or the case. . . .”  It ruled that “a judge should not require a prospective juror to disregard his or her life experiences and resulting beliefs in order to serve.” The SJC noted that was impossible to do.

As I said the SJC decision brought back to mind my long ago encounter with two friends serving on Suffolk County juries. Later in that month a murder case was ongoing that I wanted to watch while waiting for a judge in my case to start. I went into the courtroom where it was being tried. There on the jury was Phil. I stayed a short time and left. I’d learn later the judge declared a mistrial. The jury couldn’t agree. It was 11 to 1 for guilty.

The SJC is right no one should be excluded for beliefs based on his or her life time experiences. However, if those experiences teach that all African Americans are guilty, or no African Americans are guilty, despite what a juror says, the likelihood that belief will make the juror biased is too great a barrier to expect either side to overcome.

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