In Juror Bias Case, Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Verdict

AB17894

CASE NAME: Commonwealth v. Richard S. Nelson, ____ Mass. App. Ct.____ (2017), Appeals Court No. 16-P-808, Released June 5, 2017.

SUMMARY: In the criminal (OUI) case of Commonwealth v. Richard S. Nelson, a unanimous Massachusetts Appeals Court held that a District Court did not abuse its discretion by failing to excuse a juror who admitted to potential bias. The Appeals Court went on to advise lower courts on how to go about questioning jurors in such instances, and also indicated a four-prong process for challenging jurors.

DECISION: Unanimous opinion affirming District Court, 3-0, written by Chief Justice Kafker.

JUSTICES:

  1. Chief Justice Scott L. Kafker (opinion writer)
  2. Associate Justice James R. Milkey
  3. Associate Justice Kenneth V. Desmond Jr.

 

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FACTS:

  • The defendant was charged and convicted of a third offense for OUI (drunk driving).
  • Before the selection of a six person jury, the District Court reminded the parties that they each had only two peremptory challenges, per Mass.R.Crim.P. 20(c)(1), 378 Mass. 889 (1979).
  • The District Court asked the jury pool whether they would be more inclined to believe a police officer’s testimony over a non-police officer. Four jurors indicated their answer was yes.
  • One of these four jurors, Juror #14, told the District Court that he would give greater weight to a police officer’s testimony “by a little.” Juror #14 then stated that “I feel like police officers have power, so you’ve got to give at least 51 percent that they might be telling — they’re probably telling the truth. . . . Not 100 [percent], not even close.”
  • However, Juror #14 agreed that he could “keep an open mind and would listen.” Juror #14 also “thought” that he would “be able to listen to all of the facts and evidence in the case before [he would] be able to render a fair verdict.”
  • The District Court found that Juror #14 could be fair and impartial and therefore seated him on the jury.
  • The defendant then challenged Juror #14 for cause on the basis of these statements.
  • The District Court declined to excuse Juror #14 for cause.
  • The defendant exercised his two peremptory challenges on two other jurors and not on Juror #14.
  • The defendant then answered that he was satisfied with the jury, and was subsequently convicted of the offense.

OPINION:

  • The Appeals Court held that the District Court did not abuse its discretion by failing to excuse Juror #14 for cause since Juror #14, despite admitting some bias, also indicated that he could follow the directions of the court, keep an open mind, and deliver a fair verdict.
  • The Appeals Court noted that parties can request additional peremptory challenges, even if the District Court has denied excusing a juror for cause.
  • The Appeals Court stressed the fact that, when the defendant had used his peremptory challenges on the other two jurors, the defendant had not first asked the District Court to remove those two jurors for cause . As a result, the defendant did not exhaust all his options and thus did not prove that he was compelled to accept a juror that otherwise would have been excused as not being impartial.
  • “The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights guarantee the right of a criminal defendant to a trial by an impartial jury.”
  • The Appeals Court added that, despite no abuse of discretion, a preferable policy  would have been for the District Court to ask (in, perhaps, the spirit of Columbo)  “at least one more question to clarify that [Juror #14] understood that a fifty-one to forty-nine percent predisposition in favor of police testimony was not proper and must be put aside.”
Columbo-Pointing-e1354687464658
Det. Columbo, as played by Peter Falk

ANALYSIS:

  • For a District Court criminal case, the Appeals Court intimates a four-prong process for challenging jurors:
    • First, move to challenge any undesirable jurors for cause.
    • Second, peremptorily challenge all undesirable jurors not excused for cause.
    • Third, under Mass.R.Crim.P. 20(c)(1), 378 Mass. 889 (1979 ), request additional peremptory challenges for undesirable jurors not excused for cause and for which peremptory challenges are exhausted.
    • Fourth, when asked by the District Court if satisfied with the jury, the defendant should answer that he is not satisfied, and that he objects to certain jurors based on his previously-stated reasons, and that he wishes the court to note his objection for the record.
  • Jurors are not automatically disqualified if they admit bias in favor of police officers, so long as they indicate that they can follow the directions of the court; be fair and impartial; keep and open mind; listen to all the evidence; and otherwise render a fair verdict.
  • For members of the jury pool admitting slight bias in favor of police officers, courts should indicate to them that such bias is not acceptable and must be put aside.

 

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