Last week I argued an important case, Mason v. United States (No. 15-CF-305), before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. I represented Mr. Mason, an African-American criminal defendant who had been convicted by a District of Columbia Superior Court jury.
During jury selection the trial judge had excluded, over a defense objection, a prospective jury member who said under questioning that she thought that she could be fair and impartial in this particular case, but that, in general, she thought that the criminal justice system in D.C. is “tilted” against African-Americans. The trial judge apparently thought that this potential juror would be unfairly biased against the prosecution because of the defendant’s race. I argued on behalf of my client that the prospective juror’s views about racial bias were hardly unusual and that, absent a finding that there was some legitimate reason to think that she was biased in this particular case, it was reversible error to have excluded her from the jury.
There is surprisingly little case law on this issue. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that in death penalty cases it is is improper to exclude from the jury individuals who personally oppose capital punishment but who can nevertheless follow the law in a specific case in deciding whether the death penalty should be imposed. We argued in our briefs that, by analogy, these cases applied to Mr. Mason’s situation–individuals who believe as a general matter that the justice system is racially biased, but who can nevertheless look at the facts of a particular case and apply the law in determining a defendant’s guilt or innocence, cannot be properly excluded from a jury.
It is usually hard to divine an appellate court’s decision from an oral argument, but the three judge appellate panel certainly seemed sympathetic to our arguments on this issue. The Court of Appeals should issue its decision in the next several months. Given the limited number of decisions on exclusion of jurors for their viewpoint on issues of general societal importance outside the capital punishment context, the court’s opinion in this case will likely be an important precedent for future cases in the District of Columbia and elsewhere.