Court says jurors can bring opinions into the courtroom

Juries convene on a daily basis throughout Texas. Prior to being selected, jurors are asked questions to determine if they have beliefs regarding the criminal justice system and whether they can reach a verdict based purely on the evidence given. Many times, a prospective juror who admits to preconceived opinions of the justice system is dismissed for cause.

However, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice has ruled a different analysis must be taken before dismissal of a juror. In the case of an African American defendant, a prospective juror was asked if she had an opinion regarding the criminal justice system. She responded that she felt the system was "rigged against young African Americans accused of drug crimes." She based her opinion on her experiences in working with at-risk black males. The court granted the prosecution's motion to dismiss her for cause.

According to the ruling on appeal, the idea of dismissing a juror due to an opinion based on life experiences is not always automatic. The court reasoned that jurors are asked if they can put aside their opinions for the sake of the trial.

The judge claimed setting aside an opinion is nearly impossible. Rather, she wrote, the true question is whether the prospective juror can follow the court's instructions and base a decision solely on the evidence. The distinction may be subtle, but there is a difference in analysis. In that case, the prospective juror wasn't asked this question and dismissal for cause was premature.

Jury selection is a vital part of the criminal trial. Attorneys on both sides are given preemptory challenges where a prospective juror can be dismissed without a reason. At other times, as in the case mentioned, jurors can be dismissed for cause. The criminal defense attorney knows that selecting the right jurors can be the difference between acquittal and a conviction.

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