Selecting Impartial Jurors
In Massachusetts any person, 18 or older, who lives in the state for more than 50% of the year can be called for jury duty, including college and high-school students. Jurors are picked at random and randomly assigned to court houses within the county in which they reside. Massachusetts has a “one day or one trial” system of jury duty, meaning that a person fulfills their civic responsibility of jury service for three years by appearing for jury duty on the day assigned whether or not they are chosen as a trial juror. If chosen, the juror must serve for the duration of the trial which is usually three days or less. When seating a jury, the court’s responsibility is to ensure that each juror is “impartial as to the persons involved and unprejudiced and uncommitted” regarding a case. Thus, a judge generally asks potential jurors general questions regarding any influences, opinions or bias that might influence their ability to fairly evaluate the evidence or follow the law, and follows up with any prospective jurors who indicate they may not be able to be impartial with individual private inquiry called “voir dire.” In a recent case, the SJC clarified the proper handling of juror beliefs or opinions at this stage of jury selection.
Biased Prospective Jurors
In that case, a prospective juror in a criminal case self-identified, in response to the judge’s general questions, that she might not be able to be impartial. When questioned at sidebar, the potential juror stated that she thought “the system is rigged against young African-American males.” The judge asked her if she “can put aside that opinion and bias” to which she responded that she could not put it aside because it was the lens through which she viewed the world. Although the prospective juror stated that she could listen to the evidence and be unbiased, following consultation with counsel, the judge dismissed the prospective juror for cause at the prosecutor’s request and over the defendant’s objection.
Able to Listen and Apply the Law
In finding the voir dire defective and juror dismissal unwarranted, the SJC noted that every prospective juror comes with their own thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs, and experiences that may, or may not, affect how they look at a case, and that such differences are expected and appropriate. The SJC found that asking a prospective juror to put aside his or her preconceived notions about the case to be tried was entirely appropriate and necessary, however, asking them to put aside opinions formed based on their life experiences or belief system was not. The SJC concluded that the trial judge mistakenly equated an inability to disregard one’s life experiences and resulting beliefs with an inability to be impartial, and clarified that a judge in this situation should focus not on a prospective juror’s ability to put aside their beliefs formed as a result of life experiences, but rather on whether that juror, given their life experiences and resulting beliefs, is able to listen to the evidence and properly apply the law as provided by the judge.
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