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Believing justice system biased against black men not enough reason to exclude possible juror from black man's trial, court rules

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that jurors can perform impartially in cases involving criminal charges against an African-American man even if they feel the justice system as a whole is biased against young African-American men.

In a case involving the trial of a man in Brockton on cocaine charges, the court issued a new guideline for trial judges to follow in questioning prospective jurors for possible bias, on the theory that jurors do not have be a complete tabula rasa with no experiences or beliefs to serve impartially: Judges conducting interviews of prospective jurors have to get very detailed in questioning of jurors they feel might be unable to hear and decide a case in an impartial manner because they can't set aside deeply held beliefs.

The ruling did not, however, help the African-American man who appealed his conviction and one-year jail sentence for cocaine possession: The court held that Quinton Williams did not show that the jurors in his trial were biased against him and ruled he still got a fair trial.

Through his attorneys, Williams argued that in dismissing a juror who felt "the system is rigged against young African American males," the judge in his case made it harder for him to get a jury of his peers, by essentially barring one group of people in the community from serving on the jury. His trial attorney had objected when the judge decided to dismiss the potential juror.

The state's highest court, however, said that Williams was unable to show that the jurors who were chosen for his trial were somehow biased against him or impartial, and that the judge, even though he should have continued questioning the prospective juror in more detail, dismissed the woman because of her beliefs that were directly related to the case, not because she was a member of a particular group in the community.

Following a voir dire discussion with the woman, the judge agreed with prosecutors to dismiss her because she hesitated at a couple of points when he asked if she felt she could still hear the evidence and fairly assess its meaning.

The SJC recited the objection:

I mean there -- there's -- the drug -- the issues regarding the mass incarceration of young African American males has been all over the news. Everybody has read about it. This is -- she has a little more information, but she did say she could be impartial.

And by the way, he's not a juvenile. He's an adult.

The judge replied:

Yeah. But he's a youthful looking guy, and she says she's going to have trouble. She hesitated quite a bit, Counsel, and I -- I -- I find on the record that she really struggled with it.

"She said I'll try to and then that --

I'm going to let her go for cause.

The SJC pondered this:

We agree that holding particular beliefs about how African-American men are treated in the criminal justice system should not be automatically disqualifying. See Mason v. United States, 170 A.3d 182, 187 (D.C. 2017). However, that is not what happened here. The judge undertook to determine whether, given her opinion about the criminal justice system, the prospective juror could nevertheless be an impartial juror in the trial of an African-American man. However, the voir dire ultimately was incomplete because the judge did not inquire further to determine whether, given the prospective juror's beliefs based on her life experiences, she nevertheless could fairly evaluate the evidence and follow the law.

Instead, the judge decided that the prospective juror was not able to be impartial because she expressed uncertainty about being able to "put aside" her beliefs and experiences and because she acknowledged that she would look at the case "differently" due to her experiences. As discussed infra, a judge in this situation should focus not on a prospective juror's ability to put aside his or her beliefs formed as a result of life experiences, but rather on whether that juror, given his or her life experiences and resulting beliefs, is able to listen to the evidence and apply the law as provided by the judge.

The court then concluded:

A judge's discretion in this realm, although broad, is rooted in determining a prospective juror's impartiality based on the juror's answers in a sufficiently thorough voir dire. Because the voir dire of the prospective juror here did not address whether she could fairly evaluate the evidence and apply the law given her belief regarding the justice system, the judge's assessment of her ability to be a fair and impartial juror was incomplete. However, because we conclude that the defendant was not prejudiced as a result, we affirm [the verdict].

The court added:

Although the prospective juror indicated that, due to experiences she had, she believed that the "system is rigged against young African American males," and that this belief was not one that she could "put aside," she did not express any opinions having to do with the defendant or the case about to be tried. Nevertheless, the record here indicates that the judge required the prospective juror to "put aside" her firmly held beliefs shaped by her life experiences in order to serve, and excused her because her experiences would cause her to "look at [the case] differently."

Every prospective juror comes with his or her own thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs, and experiences that may, or may not, affect how he or she "looks" at a case. Indeed, this court has acknowledged on multiple occasions that jurors do not approach their duties with a tabula rasa. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Mutina, 366 Mass. 810, 817-818 (1975) ("Jurors do not come to their temporary judicial service as sterile intellectual mechanisms purged of all those subconscious factors which have formed their characters and temperaments such as racial or ethnic background, sex, economic status, intellectual capacity, family status, religious persuasion, political leanings, educational attainment, moral convictions, employment experience, military service or their individual appreciations of the social problems of the moment"); Ricard, 355 Mass. at 512 ("Every individual has impressions and beliefs, likes and dislikes").

It would neither be possible nor desirable to select a jury whose members did not bring their life experiences to the court room and to the jury deliberation room. ... Thus, a prospective juror may not be excused for cause merely because he or she believes that African-American males receive disparate treatment in the criminal justice system. For that reason a trial judge must take care to determine whether such an opinion would affect a prospective juror's ability to be impartial.

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PDF icon Complete ruling in Williams case226.04 KB


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Do you want an honest person who has given the issue critical thought based on decades of statistics that support findings of bias?

Or do you want a fool who fails to think critically evaluating guilt and innocence?

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Because being socialized in a culture of implicit bias and white-supremacy hasn't excluded jurors. We should be honest about what we've been taught in society and bring that perspective to jury service.

Voting closed 2

Raised in a working class environment. I was not raised to be bigoted towards people witha skin color different from mine. Neither was Iraised in a culture of white supremacy.Speaking now as a mature and experienced adult, I do believe bigotry and bias towards working class or poor people of all skin colors is commonplace and defacto socially acceptable.

Voting closed 2

There's a difference between being raised not to be bigoted, and the fact that anyone born white in America has been socialized to perpetuate white supremacy. White supremacy doesn't mean marching with tiki torches. It is a system purposely designed to advantage white people over people deemed non-white. It's inescapable.

It's also important for us to understand that being white in a country practicing white supremacy doesn't mean you don't have challenges, economic hardship, or other systemic barriers in your life. But an institutionalized stigmatization of you based on skin color is not one of those barriers.

Voting closed 1

Because I do associate white supremacy with white supremacists. And I associate white supremacists with Nazis, and Klan members, and all those other Right wing groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center and ADL define as white supremacists.

And where do Asians come into this? Are they white supremacists as well? Because they sure benefit from a lot of this as well don't they? Like I said, I think we need different words.

Voting closed 0

I am a middle aged white mother and grandmother with a full time job but still living paycheck to paycheck, hitting the food pantry once a month, and struggling to pay my rent without any assistance. I'm not feeling any supremacy in my life at all. I was unfortunately called for jury duty one sunny day at Suffolk Superior. When it finally came time for me to enter the court room and be "screened" for jury service, I was shocked in horror to look up and see the father of murdered little baby Bella Bond way up at the front of the room next to his defense attorney. All I know is I immediately got nauseous and broke down in tears at the sight of such monster. A court officer immediately pointed me out to the judge and I was told to leave. I didn't even have to wait. Just sayin'.

Voting closed 6

I admit my motive is mostly selfish, I don't want to ever get called to jury service ever again. Most especially a grand jury where you are stuck for months without your normal pay. But really it also comes down to not trusting humans, not even lawyers and judges, to actually know the law. Judgebot 2000 please.

Voting closed 0

to program Judgebot 2000?

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We shouldn't be discussing it as "the view that the system is biased against Black folks." It's quite well documented that this is the case. It might be relevant to assess whether the person understands these biases and has examined their own biases.

Voting closed 3

If you have to seat a jury, all of whose members say they don't believe that the justice system is rigged against young black men, then... you are seating a rigged jury.

Voting closed 1