Juror Number 15 answered bluntly when the judge asked if she had any views that would affect her ability to render a fair verdict in the case of Quinton Williams, a young black man accused of trying to deal crack cocaine.
Yes, the woman told Judge Daniel J. Hourihan during jury selection in Brockton District Court. She did.
“Frankly, I think the system is rigged against African-American males,” she told Hourihan in May 2017.
Hourihan dismissed her from the jury pool for cause. Williams was later convicted of drug possession, a lesser charge, and sentenced to one year in jail.
Now, Williams is appealing his conviction to the state’s highest court, arguing that Hourihan abused his discretion when he dismissed the prospective juror for expressing views that have “been widely proven to be fact” by numerous studies.
Recognizing “racial disparities in the criminal justice system is not an opinion,” said Williams’s appellate attorney, Edward Crane. “It’s not a viewpoint. It’s a fact, and no one should be excluded from jury service for believing in what is basically the truth.”
Prosecutors in Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz’s office said the woman was dismissed not because of her views, but because she was unable to state firmly that she could set them aside and view the evidence objectively.
The unusual challenge will go before the Supreme Judicial Court Oct. 2, in a case that explores the fairness of jury selection and delves into the racial inequities that media groups and researchers have shown influence virtually every stage of a criminal case: from arrest to trial to sentencing.
Legal observers said a decision by the SJC could carry broad ramifications not only for the way juries are selected, but for the court system’s commitment to racial justice.
“Jurors who express understandable concern about whether our justice system is actually just shouldn’t be treated worse than anybody else,” said Matthew Segal, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which joined in a brief filed by the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in support of Williams. “The implications are really serious and damaging.”
The brief cites an NBC News exit poll conducted during the 2016 presidential election that found that 82 percent of black voters believed the criminal justice system was unfair to African Americans.
“If this court were to hold that expressing this viewpoint justifies a for-cause dismissal of a juror, the result would be that a disproportionate number of minority jurors will be excluded from the jury pool,” attorneys from the Boston-based firm Foley Hoag wrote in the brief.
Beth Stone, a spokeswoman for Cruz, declined to comment.
“With the SJC poised to hear the case in October, we are not going to comment beyond our filing,” Stone said.
In their court filing, prosecutors said the juror was not “unequivocally impartial” when Hourihan asked her if she could set aside her views.
“The defendant faults the trial judge who declined to seat a juror who volunteered that she held a bias, and then hesitated, struggled and gave contradictory and equivocal answers to straightforward questions attempting to explore her partiality,” wrote Gail McKenna, a Plymouth assistant district attorney.
The woman told Hourihan that her beliefs came from her work “in a school setting” where she often deals with low-income teenagers who have been convicted of drug crimes. Hourihan asked if she could put aside “that opinion and bias.”
“I don’t think I can put it aside,” she replied, according to the appeal. “I think that’s the lens I view the world through, but I think I can be unbiased . . . I think I can listen to the evidence.”
The prosecutor asked that she be removed for cause — a move that would allow the prosecution to conserve a peremptory challenge, which allows both sides to dismiss a prospective juror without specifying a reason.
Williams’s lawyer objected, arguing the woman’s answer should not disqualify her because Williams was not a juvenile and reports of mass incarceration of black men had recently been in the news.
“But he’s a youthful-looking guy, and she says she’s going to have trouble,” Hourihan replied. “She hesitated quite a bit, counsel . . . ”
In Williams’s appeal, Crane argued that the judge held the woman’s experience with troubled teenagers against her when he dismissed her, another abuse of his discretion.
“Jurors are entitled to and often encouraged to rely on their own life experiences when evaluating the evidence in a case,” Crane wrote.
McKenna, in her filing, said there is no evidence to show the judge considered the juror’s work experience.
“She was not a qualified juror because she was not impartial,” McKenna wrote.
Geraldine S. Hines, a former SJC associate justice who signed on to the amicus brief, said that in her experience, judges typically accept prospective jurors who say they think they can set aside their bias.
Hines said she hopes the case will compel the high court to reflect on the importance of including jurors with different perspectives on the workings of the criminal justice system.
“It doesn’t mean you’re going to find the defendant not guilty. It just means that you understand something about how things can go wrong,” Hines said. “It’s offensive to me that people with that understanding could just be categorically excluded from serving.”
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.