Thursday, September 28, 2017
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed a tampering conviction because of the exclusion of a potential juror who had expressed concern about the treatment of black men in the criminal justice system
During jury selection, the trial court asked the potential jurors if they, their immediate family, or their close friends had been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of a crime within the past ten years. Juror 7575-B was among the potential jurors who answered in the affirmative. During follow-up questioning, she explained that her half-brother had been jailed for assault in Texas, and her family suspected that racial profiling had been involved. She also said that her brother had been “treated unfairly” by the justice system as “a black man in Texas.” When asked if her views about her brother would affect her ability to be impartial in this case, she responded:
I mean I think I can be impartial. I mean I think it‟s shaped my view of the world. But I don‟t know the details of this case. I don‟t think I would see my brother in it. His situation is different. But I definitely, that‟s my experience with the system.
The prosecutor then asked Juror 7575-B if she thought that “black men in DC are treated fairly or unfairly by the criminal justice system,” and she responded that she thought they were treated unfairly and that “things are tilted in the wrong direction.”
The prosecutor's motion to strike the juror was granted.
Under these principles, we hold that the exclusion for cause of Juror 7575-B was erroneous. The trial court disqualified Juror 7575-B because Juror 7575-B believed that the criminal-justice system reflects a systemic bias against black men. According to statistics cited by Mr. Mason, that belief is far from uncommon: research conducted in 2013 indicated that 35% of all adults and 68% of blacks believed that blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the courts...
Standing alone, the belief that the criminal-justice system is systemically unfair to blacks is not a basis to disqualify a juror. Rather, that belief is neither uncommon nor irrational. Moreover, there is no basis for an inference that potential jurors holding that belief are necessarily unable to be impartial. To the contrary, potential jurors who hold that belief might well be particularly attentive to making sure that they perform their function impartially. The United States does not cite, and we have not found, any case upholding a trial court‟s removal of a potential juror for cause based solely on the potential juror‟s belief that the criminal-justice system was unfair to blacks...
Turning back to the present case, the erroneous disqualification of Juror 7575-B is of particular concern for several reasons: (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 Juror 7575-B‟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.
The court (Associate Judge McLeese joined by Associate Judge Glickman and Senior Judges Ruiz) found sufficient evidence of the crime to permit a new trial. (Mike Frisch)