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Massachusetts Case Law Update: February 4th, 2021.

February 12, 2021

In a decision from the Appeals Court in Massachusetts on February 4th, 2021, the Court reversed the conviction of a defendant, holding that the trial judge was wrong to seat a juror the defendant sought to remove with a peremptory strike. The case is Commonwealth v. Gonzalez, No. 19-P-1767, 2021 Mass. App. LEXIS 15 (App. Ct. Feb. 4, 2021)

A peremptory strike of a potential juror, done during jury selection, is a party’s opportunity to remove a potential juror without cause. Each side is entitled to a specific number of peremptory strikes during jury selection (this number varies based on what type of offense the defendant is charged with and whether the case is in District or Superior Court). In other words, a party is allowed to simply pass on a potential juror without having to provide a justification (subject to certain exceptions). 

However, an opposing party may raise a “Batson” challenge to a peremptory strike when there is sufficient evidence to establish an inference that the party making the peremptory strike did so for a discriminatory purpose. See Commonwealth v. Sanchez, 485 Mass. 491, 493, 151 N.E.3d 404 (2020).

The name Batson comes from the seminal case Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), where the Supreme Court of the United States announced that the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the states from discrimination based on race when exercising peremptory strikes in jury selection. 

When a party properly raises a Batson challenge to a peremptory strike, the striking party needs to then provide a race-neutral reason for the peremptory strike. See Sanchez, 485 Mass. at 493.  Finally, the trial judge must decide whether the reasons for the strike were genuine, adequate, and not motivated by race or other discriminatory purposes (A judge is “obligated to make a specific determination or specific findings, in some form” regarding the adequacy and genuineness of an attorney’s proffered reasons for a peremptory challenge. Commonwealth v. Gonzalez, No. 19-P-1767, 2021 Mass. App. LEXIS 15, at *8 (App. Ct. Feb. 4, 2021)).

In the Gonzalez case above, it was not the opposing party (the prosecutor), but rather the trial judge, who raised a Batson challenge to defense counsel’s peremptory strike of the juror in question. The judge then required defense counsel to provide the court with a race-neutral reason for the strike. Defense counsel’s reasons for the peremptory strike included 1) the juror disclosed she had family in the Worcester police department (the department that arrested the defendant); and 2) the juror told the court it was her opinion that a defendant should have to testify in his own defense (defendants have a Constitutional right not to do so). 

In reviewing the judge’s decision to seat the juror despite the reasons provided by defense counsel for the peremptory strike, the Appeals Court noted the reasons were “clear and reasonably specific, personal to the juror and not based on the juror’s group affiliation . . . and related to the particular case being tried.” Commonwealth v. Rosa-Roman, 485 Mass. 617, 636 (2020), quoting Commonwealth v. Maldonado, 439 Mass. 460, 464-465 (2003). See Commonwealth v. Torres, 453 Mass. 722, 731 (2009) (“a defendant may use a peremptory challenge to remove a juror with familial connections to law enforcement”). See Gonzalez, Mass. App. LEXIS 15, at *9 (App. Ct. Feb. 4, 2021).

The Appeals Court held the judge’s decision to seat the juror was reversible error because the reasons for the peremptory strike were adequate and remanded the case for a new trial. Id. at *12.

Follow @bvbdefense on Twitter for updates on major cases from the Massachusetts Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court, the First Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of the United States. 

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