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Jurors can bring personal beliefs into the courtroom

Judges typically have a list of factors it considers before dismissing a juror, but at the top of the list is that person’s ability to remain impartial when hearing evidence. Massachusetts Justice Kimberly Budd wrote as much, saying in her decision: “Asking a prospective juror to put aside his or her preconceived notions about the case to be tried is entirely appropriate (and indeed necessary); however, asking him or her to put aside opinions formed based on his or her life experiences or belief system is not.” 

This was in response to Commonwealth v. Quinton Williams. Williams, who is African-American, was convicted of possession with intent to distribute. During the jury selection process, one prospective juror who worked with low income and at risk youth convicted of drug crimes claimed that she believed that the system was rigged against black men, but that she could still remain impartial about the case. The judge excused the juror despite the objection of Williams’ attorney.

Here in Indiana, the rules for picking jurors say nothing about experience, bias or impartiality. The reasons trial lawyers give for dismissal can be Peremptory Challenge (no reason) or Dismissed for Cause (often something in the jurors background that a lawyer feels would leave them with prejudiced).

National implications

This decision was monitored by local and national news. Supported in concurring opinions by Massachusetts Chief Justice Ralph Gants and Associate Justice Frank Gaziano, Judge Budd’s decision may have an impact in the national conversation regarding judges, jury selection and jurors’ preconceived notions.

The jurors role in court

A juror can indeed have opinions about the broad themes involved in a case, but it should remain impartial in the specific criminal cases. The prosecution and the defense each get to question a prospective juror to determine impartiality and background. Attorneys will then try to mold a jury to fit this standard in order to work towards a positive outcome as they aggressively defend the rights of their client.

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