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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Wednesday that jurors should not have to put aside their personal beliefs when serving on a jury.
The decision responded to the appeal of a 2018 conviction where Quinton Williams was convicted of possession with intent to distribute a Class B substance. During his case, a woman was dismissed from sitting on the jury after she said the legal system was rigged against African-American men.
“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,” Associate Justice Kimberly Budd wrote in the unanimous opinion.
Budd also wrote that although the legal precedent to question prospective jurors is “less than clear,” holding particular beliefs should not automatically disqualify a person from sitting on a jury. Instead, she emphasized that judges should focus on whether a juror is able to listen to the evidence and apply the law as intended.
“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.' "
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Budd also clarified that judges have the discretion to determine if a someone can be impartial based on their responses to voir dire, the process of being questioned before they are seated on a jury. On the matter of Williams' case, the court ruled the lower court judge should have further questioned the juror before dismissal.
However, the court maintained the removal did not affect the case and upheld the conviction.
Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which signed onto an amicus brief in the case, supported the decision.
“The Court’s decision rightly acknowledges 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,” Segal said in a statement.
“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.”
Edward Crane, Williams’ attorney, said although his client should have been released, the decision would protect African-Americans in future juries.
"The majority of black people in this country do believe that the system is unfair in some way," he said. "If that's grounds for dismissal from a jury, it's gonna limit the number of black people to that are qualified to serve on a jury."
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