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Commonwealth v. Williams

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Plymouth

February 13, 2019

COMMONWEALTH
v.
QUINTON K. WILLIAMS.

          Heard: October 2, 2018.

         Complaint received and sworn to in the Brockton Division of the District Court Department on March 1, 2016.

         The case was tried before Daniel J. Hourihan, J.

         The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review.

          Edward Crane for the defendant.

          Gail M. McKenna, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Anthony Mirenda, Caroline S. Donovan, Amanda Hainsworth, Christopher J. Cifrino, & Justin Marble, for Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

          Rebecca Kiley, Committee for Public Counsel Services, for Committee for Public Counsel Services, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

          Present (Sitting at Worcester): Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          BUDD, J.

         The defendant, Quinton K. Williams, an African-American man, was charged with possession of a class B substance with the intent to distribute pursuant to G. L. c. 94C, § 32A (a.) . During jury selection, over the defendant's objection, the judge excused for cause a prospective juror who stated that she believed that "the system is rigged against young African American males." The defendant subsequently was convicted and now appeals, claiming that the judge abused his discretion in dismissing the prospective juror.

         Our jurisprudence regarding how to assess beliefs or opinions expressed by prospective jurors during voir dire has been less than clear. Accordingly, we take this opportunity to set forth the factors that a judge should consider when a prospective juror discloses a belief or opinion based on his or her world view. We conclude that although the voir dire was incomplete, it did not prejudice this defendant. Thus, we affirm the conviction.[1]

         Background.

         During jury selection, the judge asked questions of the entire venire, including the following:

"[Y]ou've been read a copy of the complaint which charges [the defendant], which is just an allegation, that he possessed [a] class B controlled substance, cocaine, with the intent to distribute.
"Is there anything about the subject matter or your views about the subject matter that would affect your ability to be fair and impartial in deciding the case?"

         Prospective juror no. 15 (prospective juror), among other potential jurors, answered in the affirmative. Subsequently, the judge and the prospective juror had the following exchange at sidebar:

Q.: "I believe you might have answered a question affirmatively. Was that a -- a hardship question?"
The clerk: "No. ... It was on fair and impartial . . . [o]r bias."
Q.: "You feel like you might have a bias in the case?"
A.: "Yeah. I worked with, like, low income youth in a school setting. I worked a lot with people who were convicted of -- like teenagers who were convicted of drug crimes.
"And frankly, I think the system is rigged against young African American males.
"I'm happy to serve on the jury trial -- on the jury because I think it's important, but -- "
Q.: "You think that belief might interfere with your ability to be fair and impartial?"
A.: "I don't think so."
Q.: "You -- you think you can put aside that opinion and bias -- "
A.: "I don't think I can put it aside. I think that's --"
Q.: "No?"
A.:" -- the lens that I view the world through, but I think I can be unbiased -- I think I can be -- I think I can listen to the evidence."
Q.: "All right. 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?"
A.: "I think so."
Q.: "I have to be assured that you can though. You think you -- as -- as you sit in there, it might -- your experiences with -- with people in that type of a situation is going to have you look at it differently?"
A.: "Probably."
Q.: "Okay. Step over there for a minute."

         When the prospective juror stepped away from the sidebar, the Commonwealth requested that she be excused for cause and the following ...


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