Friday, January 7, 2011
Black Box: Supreme Judicial Court Of Massachusetts Allows Jury Impeachment On Racial Bias, Upholds Verdict
An African-American man is convicted of murder in the first degree on theories of extreme atrocity or cruelty and felony-murder, of aggravated rape, and of aggravated burglary. After the verdict is entered, defense counsel learns that
at one point during the deliberations, [Juror Y] stood at the easel in the jury room explaining her view of the evidence, which was challenged by other jurors in a heated discussion. In defense of her position, Juror Y blurted out that the victim's injuries were the result of a beating administered by a big black man. Juror Y's words provoked an immediate reaction from [a] black female juror, who asked Juror Y what being black had to do with it and called her a racist. Juror Y denied she was racist, responding that the defendant was a big black man and that her words were an accurate description. The two swore at each other and the black female juror approached the easel while Juror Y returned to her seat. A juror put a leg up to separate them, but the judge found that this gesture was unnecessary as the two remained apart and their disagreement remained verbal, not physical. The confrontation ended when Juror Y said she meant no harm, and the jury foreperson called for a break in the deliberations.
Should the jurors be able to impeach their verdict, and should such impeachment lead to a new trial? According to the recent opinion of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Commonwealth v. McCowen, 2010 WL 4984854 (Mass. 2010), the answer to the first question is "yes," but the answer to the second question is "no."
In McCowen, the facts were as stated above. As I have mentioned previously on this blog, courts have split on the issue of whether allegations of racial bias by jurors can form a proper predicate for jury impeachment. According to the court in McCowen, Massachusetts, which does not have codified rules of evidence, allows for such impeachment:
Where a defendant files an affidavit from a juror (or, as here, from more than one juror) alleging that a juror (or more than one juror) made a statement to another juror that reasonably demonstrates racial or ethnic bias, and the credibility of the affidavit is in issue, the trial judge should conduct a hearing to determine the truth or falsity of the affidavit's allegations, because "the possibility raised by the affidavit that the defendant did not receive a trial by an impartial jury, which was his fundamental right, cannot be ignored."
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, however, agreed with the trial court that the statements by Juror Y did not reveal to a sufficient degree that she harbored actual racial bias. Moreover, the Massachusetts Supremes agreed with the trial judge that "the black female juror's appropriate response to the statement served the beneficial purpose of exposing and 'blunting the effect' of the racial stereotype, and of warning the jury of the risk of racial stereotypes infecting their deliberations."