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Massachusetts Court Denies Defendant the Opportunity to Question Jurors Regarding Bias Towards Non-English Speakers

Jury selection in a Massachusetts criminal trial is a critical stage in any case. Because a defendant cannot be convicted unless a jury must unanimously find that a defendant was guilty of the crime charged, both prosecution and defense put a significant amount of effort into selecting jurors through a process called “voir dire.”

The voir dire process is guided largely by the judge overseeing the case. Generally, each side presents questions that they would like to ask potential jurors. The judge can approve or disapprove of specific questions, and may alter the phrasing on certain questions. Some judges allow counsel to ask the questions, while other judges ask the potential jurors the questions themselves. Of course, judges must follow certain statutory and constitutional principles during the process.

In a recent state appellate decision, the court affirmed the conviction of a defendant who was found guilty of indecent assault and battery, rejecting the defendant’s challenge to the lower court’s decision not to allow him to ask certain questions of the jury. Specifically, the defendant wanted to ask the jurors whether they had a bias against non-English speakers.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was present while his romantic partner was babysitting a 12-year-old girl. The defendant was left alone with the girl when the older woman took a shower. The defendant allegedly supplied wine to the 12-year-old, asked her to stick out her tongue, and sucked on it. The defendant asked her to do it again and she refused. Later that night, the girl told her father what happened, and the defendant was charged with indecent assault.

Before jury selection, the defendant asked that the potential jurors be asked: “Do you have any problem with a defendant that requires the services of a Spanish-speaking interpreter?” The trial court rejected the defendant’s request after asking whether the victim was also Spanish-speaking. The defendant was ultimately convicted, and appealed the lower court’s decision not to ask the jury his suggested question.

On appeal, the court recognized that “a thorough voir dire is necessary to ensure an unbiased jury.” However, the court determined that it was not an abuse of discretion not to ask the question. Interestingly, the court noted that, “going forward, however, we anticipate that where a defendant is entitled to the services of a translator because of an inability to speak English, the judge will, on request, ordinarily pose a question to the venire regarding language-related bias.”

Have You Been Arrested for a Massachusetts Crime?

If you have recently been arrested for a Massachusetts sex crime, or any other serious criminal offense, Attorney Patrick J. Murphy can help. At our Boston criminal defense practice, we represent clients who face all serious crimes, including drug charges, gun cases, robberies, as well as violent and sexual offenses. We fight hard on behalf of our clients, ensuring that the prosecution is held to their high burden. To learn more about how we can help you defend your freedom against the accusations you are facing, call 617-367-0450 to schedule a free consultation today.