WORCESTER — The state’s highest court will decide if a Brockton judge abused his discretion when he dismissed a prospective juror who said the “system is rigged’’ against African-Americans in a closely watched case that asks whether doubting the basic fairness of the judicial process represents bias or a simple statement of fact.
The case, which went before the full Supreme Judicial Court Tuesday, has drawn the interest of criminal defense lawyers, civil liberties advocates, and retired judges who contend that disqualifying jurors based on their beliefs about the fairness of the criminal justice system could have devastating consequences on the number of black people selected to juries. Large numbers of African-Americans believe the criminal justice system discriminates against them, according to recent polls and studies.
During Tuesday’s arguments, Associate Justice Kimberly S. Budd explored that concern in the case of Quentin Williams, a young black man who was found guilty of drug possession in 2017 after the juror was dismissed from consideration.
“Don’t you then have to worry about keeping off a cross-section of people who may believe the system isn’t fair to black people?’’ Budd asked before a packed courtroom in downtown Worcester, where the seven-member court sat for a special session designed to broaden public awareness of the state’s court system.
Williams, who served a year in jail for possession of crack cocaine, is appealing his conviction on the basis that District Court Judge Daniel J. Hourihan’s dismissal of the juror reduced his chances of getting a fair jury to hear his case. Williams’s appellate attorney, Edward Crane, has argued that people are correct to believe the court system is unfair to minorities. Multiple studies and media reports have shown that black people are overly represented in the criminal justice system, from the moment of arrest to incarceration.
Plymouth County prosecutors said the juror was not dismissed because of her views, but because she could not definitively tell the judge that she could set them aside and consider the evidence impartially.
Plymouth Assistant District Attorney Gail McKenna argued that Hourihan was doing his job as a “gatekeeper’’ of the courts, ensuring that a juror with potential bias was not selected to the jury.
“I think that all of us can agree that there is a history in the country of black youths, black people not being treated fairly,’’ McKenna said. “But if I’m going to sit on a jury, I have to put that aside and treat that person as an individual.’’
“So you can’t bring your life experiences to your work as a juror?’’ Budd asked.
“I think that I can bring my life experience, but I think that first and foremost I have to be able to follow the judge’s instructions,’’ McKenna said. “I can’t let my belief system interfere with that.’’
Williams’s trial began in May 2017. During jury selection, a female juror, whose name and race are unknown, told Hourihan that her work with teenagers who had been convicted of drug crimes had led her to believe that young black men are not treated fairly by the courts.
“And frankly, I think the system is rigged against young African-American males,’’ said the woman, known as Juror 15.
Hourihan then asked if she thought that belief would interfere with her ability to be “fair and impartial.’’
“I don’t think so,’’ she replied. He asked if she could put aside her “opinion and bias.’’ The juror replied she could not “put it aside.’’
“I think that’s the lens that I view the world through, but I think I can be unbiased,’’ the juror said.
Hourihan kept pushing, saying he needed to be “assured.’’
“All right,’’ he said. “But you’re going to have to be able to put that out of your mind and look at only the evidence. Do you think you can do that?’’
She replied “I think so.’’ But Hourihan dismissed her for cause, saying her answers suggested she would have trouble deciding the case fairly.
On Tuesday, the justices expressed concern with the repeated questions and the judge’s label of the juror’s belief system as a “bias.’’
“I think that the person can bring his or her life experiences’’ into their work as a juror, said Associate Justice David A. Lowy. “This isn’t a bias until it impacts your ability to be fair and impartial, right?’’
Associate Justice Frank M. Gaziano said Hourihan should have stopped questioning the juror as soon as she replied that she could be impartial.
“Jurors don’t come to us as pieces of clay that we can mold,’’ Gaziano said. “This judge was ultimately pushing her to say, ‘I can put aside what I believe.’ Isn’t that wrong?’’
McKenna replied that Hourihan was trying to determine the credibility of a juror he ultimately did not believe.
“Why should a judge ever stop until a judge is satisfied with his answer?’’ McKenna said.
Gaziano also challenged Crane, asking him how the court should advise judges, who often have to sift through dozens of jurors in a short time, on what constitutes a bias versus a reasonable belief system.
“If a juror says, ‘I think all blacks commit crimes or I think all Italians commit crimes,’ and the judge says, ‘Can you listen to the evidence without bias,’ and the juror says, ‘Yes,’ does that juror sit?’’ Gaziano asked.
“No,’’ Crane replied. “Any reasonable citizen would know that’s a bias right off the bat. You don’t have to dig any further.’’
Maria Cramer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.