The DC Court of Appeals in Mason v. U.S., decided on September 28, 2017, drastically reversed a set of convictions based on trial error in disqualifying a potential juror.
Appellant Mason challenged his convictions for tampering with evidence, destruction of property, obstruction of justice, and unlawful entry contending that the trial court committed a reversible error in disqualifying a potential juror.
Juror 7575-B was at the center of this ruling and analysis.
During the jury voir dire, juror 7575-B was asked if black men in DC are treated fairly or unfairly by the criminal justice system, and she had responded in affirmative indicating they were treated unfairly and that “things are tilted in the wrong direction.”
The trial court granted request to strike the juror for cause even though the juror had indicated further that she could have been still partial in the case and in her judgment.
The trial had reasoned that it has to be systemic if the juror believed that black men are being treated unfairly in DC without a decisive finding that such belief would influence the juror’s partiality in the case.
The case law and authority allows the court “to dismiss a juror on the ground of inferable bias only after having received responses from the juror that permit an inference that the juror in question would not be able to decide the matter objectively.”
The Court of Appeals noted that there is reliable statistical evidence and research suggesting that 35% of all adults and 68% of blacks believe that blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the criminal justice system.
That in short, the notion and belief of racial unfairness of the judicial system is not uncommon among the population as a whole and is more common among blacks.
Thus the belief that the criminal-justice system is systemically unfair to blacks is not a basis to disqualify a juror. The belief is not uncommon or irrational and on its face not sufficient to strike a juror from serving in the in panel.
To strike for cause the juror must not only believe and express that the criminal-justice system is unfair to blacks; but that also he or she cannot remain impartial in the deliberations.
Here, the trial court treated Juror 7575-B’s beliefs themselves as disqualifying without making any finding that Juror 7575-B would not remain impartial.
In some circumstances, the Court of Appeals has required defendants seeking reversal based on an error in jury selection to show actual prejudiced by the error before a reversal is warranted.
In this case the Court of Appeals deemed that such would not be necessary due to these articulated factors:
(1) The disqualification rested on Juror 7575-B’s beliefs about the criminal-justice system and race, which are important matters of legitimate public debate;
(2) Juror 7575-B’s beliefs are neither uncommon nor irrational;
(3) Juror 7575-B’s beliefs also might have a beneficial effect on the Juror’s performance of her duties as a juror;
(4) Juror 7575-B’s beliefs would naturally make her an appropriately desirable juror for a criminal defendant; and
(5) Because black potential jurors are more likely to doubt the racial fairness of the criminal-justice system, exclusion of potential jurors holding such beliefs would have a disparate impact on black potential jurors.
Thus the Court held that Mason was not required to demonstrate prejudice in order to obtain reversal because Juror 7575-B’s erroneous disqualification had a tendency to “unacceptably skew the jury in favor of one side.”
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