Criminal Law Blog

Reversible error to remove a prospective juror based on the belief that the criminal justice system is biased against black men

Mason v. United States
, No. 15-CF-305 (decided September 28, 2017)

Players: Associate Judges Glickman and McLeese, Senior Judge Ruiz. Opinion by Judge McLeese. Matthew Kaplan for the appellant. Trial Judge William M. Jackson.

Facts: At around 2:45 a.m. on October 3, 2013, several men, including appellant, forced their way into a home at gunpoint, removed several items, and drove away in the residents’ cars. After depositing some items at an abandoned house, the men drove the stolen cars to a different location and set them on fire. Police eventually tracked the men to the abandoned house and arrested them. Following a jury trial, appellant was convicted for tampering with evidence, destruction of property, obstruction of justice, and unlawful entry.

During jury selection, the trial court asked potential jurors if they, their immediate family, or close friends had been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of a crime within the past ten years. Juror 7575-B answered in the affirmative, and, during follow-up questioning, explained that her half-brother had been arrested and jailed for assault in Texas. Juror 7575-B stated that her family suspected that racial profiling had been involved and that her brother had been treated unfairly as “a black man in Texas.” Juror 7575-B nevertheless stated that she could be impartial. Asked whether she thought “black men in DC are treated . . . unfairly by the criminal justice system,” Juror 7575-B stated that she thought they were and that “things [were] tilted in the wrong direction.” The trial court removed the juror for cause on the government’s motion based on her view that black men were “systemic[ally]” treated unfairly -- “here in DC, not just in Texas.”

Issue 1: Did the trial court reversibly err in striking Juror 7575-B for cause, based on her belief that African American men were treated unfairly by the criminal justice system in Washington, D.C.?

Holding 1: Yes. Belief that the criminal justice system is systemically unfair to black men is not, without more, a basis to disqualify a juror. This belief is neither uncommon nor irrational based on available polling data, Batson cases involving jurors who express such views, and official bodies that have expressed concern about the fairness of the criminal justice system. There is no basis to infer that a juror holding such a belief is necessarily unable to remain impartial, and courts have found error to disqualify a potential juror based on a belief, absent a determination that it would interfere with the juror’s ability to remain impartial. Here, the trial court made no such determination. Rather, it treated the belief alone as disqualifying, despite Juror 7575-B’s indication that she could serve impartially.

The trial court’s ruling cannot be affirmed based on the assertedly equivocal nature of Juror 7575-B’s statement that she “th[ought] [she] could be impartial.” The government did not argue that the juror was equivocal below, and the trial court did not rely on equivocation to disqualify the juror. On the other hand, both the trial court and government accepted that other jurors could remain impartial, even when they only said they “thought” they could do so.

Appellant does not have the burden to show that erroneous disqualification of Juror 7575-B was prejudicial because it was based on a (1) common, rational viewpoint in a (2) legitimate public debate that (3) made the juror appropriately more desirable to the defense, (4) might have affected the juror’s performance positively, and (5) was more likely to be held by prospective black jurors. The Court need not consider whether the error was structural because reversal would be required even assuming harmless error review applied, given the government’s failure to attempt to show harmlessness.

Issue 2: Was the evidence of evidence tampering sufficient where (a) the “proceeding” that appellant was accused of tampered with was a police investigation and (b) appellant had no reason to believe that he would be a suspect when he burned the car?

Holding 2: Yes. (a) By its plain meaning, “official proceeding” includes investigations by D.C. government agencies, of which MPD is one. This interpretation does not yield an absurd result, as the legislature could rationally intend to punish tampering with evidence where an MPD investigation is reasonably imminent. Wynn v. United States, 48 A.3d 181 (D.C. 2012) does not suggest otherwise, as it concerned distinct language in the obstruction-of-justice statute. (b) A jury could reasonably infer that when appellant and the others burned the stolen cars, he knew that MPD’s investigation into the home invasion and robbery had been, or was likely to be, instituted due to the serious nature of the underlying crimes. Appellant need not have had reason to believe he would be the focus of that investigation.

Of Note:
The Court’s reversible/harmless error analysis on Issue 1—the erroneous disqualification of Juror 7575-B—is noteworthy because, as the Court notes, prior cases diverge on whether the defendant must show prejudice in order to obtain reversal for an error in jury selection. Here, the Court extends the logic of Hinton v. United States, 979 A.2d 663 (D.C. 2009) (en banc) (reversing disqualification of a juror based on pro-defense views), and looks to Supreme Court capital cases regarding disqualification based on views on the death penalty to hold that appellant need not show prejudice. The Court has reserved the question of whether, as in the death penalty context, exclusion of a juror based upon his or her views about the fairness of the criminal justice system constitutes structural error, not subject to harmless error review. See Gray v. Mississippi, 481 U.S. 648 (1986). WC

Read the full opinion here.