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SJC rules potential jurors don’t have to put aside all beliefs but must be able to judge impartially

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said Wednesday that people don’t have to put aside all their beliefs when they serve on juries, but they do have to be able to judge the case impartially.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said Wednesday that people don’t have to put aside all their beliefs when they serve on juries, but they do have to be able to judge the case impartially. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2018/Globe Staff/file

Ruling in a case in which a woman was excluded from a jury after she said she believed the system is rigged against young black men, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said Wednesday that people don’t have to put aside all their beliefs when they serve on juries, but they do have to be able to judge the case impartially.

“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 state’s highest court ruled.

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The court said its rulings had been “less than clear” and not “particularly precise” on “how to assess beliefs or opinions expressed by prospective jurors during voir dire,” the process of questioning potential jurors before they are seated.

The court said there was an important distinction that needed to be made between judges asking jurors to put aside their opinions about the particular case being tried and asking them to put aside opinions about “particular topics” based on their “life experiences or world view.”

While “a judge may require a prospective juror to set aside an opinion regarding the case, the judge should not expect a prospective juror to set aside an opinion born of the prospective juror’s life experiences or belief system,” the court ruled.

“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,” the court said. “Asking prospective jurors to ‘put aside’ or ‘disregard’ what they think, feel, or believe comes perilously close to improperly requiring them to ‘leave behind all that their human experience has taught them,’ ” the court said, citing previous rulings.

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The ruling came in the Plymouth County case of Commonwealth v. Quinton K. Williams. The unanimous opinion was written by Justice Kimberly S. Budd.

Williams, an African-American man, was convicted of possession with intent to distribute a Class B substance. He appealed, saying a judge had abused his discretion by dismissing the juror, who had said during questioning by the judge, “Frankly, I think the system is rigged against young African-American males.”

The court said the judge’s questioning of the juror had been “incomplete” because he had excused the juror before inquiring fully enough into whether, “given the prospective juror’s beliefs based on her life experiences, she nevertheless could fairly evaluate the evidence and follow the law.”

But Williams’s appeal ultimately failed because the court said the juror’s exclusion hadn’t harmed his case. The court affirmed his conviction.

Matt Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which participated in an amicus brief in the case, lauded the opinion, saying it rightfully acknoowedged that, “so long as they can be impartial in the case at hand, people called to serve on juries don’t need to check their life experiences at the courthouse doors.”

“Life experiences and resulting beliefs—including a belief that the criminal legal system mistreats people of color—do not disqualify prospective jurors. In fact, it would be especially unfair to disqualify prospective jurors merely because they believe that the legal system is unfair to Black men because, as the Court emphasizes, there is ample evidence that this belief is completely correct,” the statement said.

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Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said in a statement that he was pleased that Williams’s conviction was affirmed. The court ruled that Williams was “tried before a fair and impartial jury,” the statement said, and found “there was no prejudice to the defendant because that prospective juror was replaced by a fair and impartial juror.”

“Acknowledging that the handling of juror opinions can be ‘somewhat muddled,’ the court also provided guidance to trial court judges should issues such as this one arise again,” the statement said.