The Issue of Race and Jury Selection in Massachusetts Criminal Trials

During jury selection in a Massachusetts criminal trial, both the prosecution and the defense are able to ask the court to strike potential jurors from the jury whom they do not believe could be fair. These strikes “for cause” are unlimited in number. However, both sides are also given a limited number of peremptory strikes, which can be used at the party’s discretion.

Decades ago, in a landmark case issued by the United States Supreme Court, the Court held that a criminal defendant has a constitutional right, under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, to ensure that members of his race are not excluded from the jury pool based solely on their race. Since then, Massachusetts criminal courts have implemented their own rules to deal with a prosecutor’s racially discriminatory use of their peremptory strikes during jury selection.

In a recent case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts discussed the analysis that must be conducted when a defendant raises this type of challenge. The facts of the case are not particularly relevant to the court’s discussion; however, the case involved an African-American man who was charged with homicide.

During jury selection, the prosecution attempted to strike an African-American male for cause based on the man’s “health.” The request to strike for cause was denied, and the prosecution later used a peremptory strike on the juror. The defendant objected to the peremptory strike, asking the prosecution to disclose a race-neutral reason for the strike. The prosecution explained it was because the potential jury failed to adequately disclose his criminal history.

Later, the prosecution attempted to use another peremptory strike to eliminate an African-American woman from the jury. At this point, the prosecution had used two of their five peremptory strikes to eliminate African-American men, and there was one African-American woman on the jury. The defendant again objected to the use of the prosecution’s peremptory strike, but the court did not require the prosecution to prove a race-neutral reason for this juror, stating that there was “already one female of color on the jury.” The case proceeded to trial and the defendant was convicted.

In his appeal, the defendant claimed that the trial court erred when it failed to require the prosecution to offer a race-neutral reason for using a peremptory strike on the female African-American juror. The appeals court agreed with the defendant, explaining that it was improper for the trial court to rely only the fact that there was already one African-American woman on the jury in denying the defendant’s request for a race-neutral reason. The court explained that the racial and gender composition of the jury “is only one factor among many, and must be assessed in context.” The court explained that permitting a prosecutor to rely solely on the panel’s composition would let the prosecution “get away with discriminating against some African-Americans … so long as a prosecutor does not discriminate against all such individuals.”

Are You Facing Criminal Charges in the Boston Area?

If you or a loved one are facing serious criminal charges in the Boston area, contact the dedicated Boston criminal defense attorney, Patrick J. Murphy. Attorney Murphy is a dedicated Massachusetts criminal defense attorney with extensive experience handling a wide range of cases and offers his clients unrivaled dedication and commitment. To learn how Attorney Murphy can help you defend against the charges you are facing, call 617-367-0450 to schedule a free consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Court Explains the Difference Between “Attempted” and “Threatened” Battery, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published September 1, 2018

Massachusetts Court Considers Whether Juvenile Adjudications Qualify as Predicate Offenses under the ACCA, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published September 20, 2018


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