The Kaplan Law Firm’s Matthew B. Kaplan obtained the reversal of his client’s criminal conviction in a decision issued today by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals that strengthens the protections afforded by the jury system to criminal defendants. Our criminal justice system is not always fair, especially when it comes to cases involving defendants who are poor or minorities. Today’s appellate decision holds that, at least in District of Columbia courts, citizens cannot be automatically excluded from juries merely for recognizing this reality.
Our client, who was an African-American male, had been convicted of several offenses—destroying property, tampering with physical evidence, unlawful entry and obstruction of justice—and sentenced to 22.5 years of incarceration.
Our principal argument on appeal was that the trial court had wrongly excluded a potential juror who had testified during the jury selection process that, as a general matter, she thought the criminal justice system tended to be biased against African-American males. She added, however, that she believed that she could decide this particular case on its own merits. We argued that there was nothing unusual or improper about the juror’s view and that it was fundamentally unfair to the defendant to exclude such a juror. Indeed, we pointed out that a central purpose of the jury system is to control government abuses and that it could hardly perform that function if potential jurors who were skeptical about the fairness of the system were automatically excluded because of nothing more than that skepticism. We also noted that, because polling suggests that a higher proportion of Black persons than others think that the criminal justice system is unfair to Blacks, allowing the trial court to exclude persons who thought that Blacks were sometimes unfairly treated would effectively reduce Black representation on juries.
The Court of Appeals agreed with our key arguments. It held that the relevant issue was not whether a particular juror thought that, as a general matter, there was some unfairness in the criminal justice system, but whether the juror could be fair in the particular case being tried. Because the juror in this case said she could be fair—and because the trial judge gave no indication that he had any doubts that she was telling the truth—the appellate court concluded that exclusion of the juror was a mistake. It went on to agree with our argument that the mistake was of such a serious nature that our client was entitled to a new trial.
Obviously, this is an important victory for our client. But it also sets a significant precedent, as there were few cases anywhere in the country that addressed this issue. The decision is binding only in D.C. courts, but it is well-reasoned and is likely to be relied upon as persuasive authority by courts throughout the country.
The case is Mason v. United States, No. 15-CF-305, (D.C. Sept. 28, 2017). We had previously written about it shortly after Mr. Kaplan argued it to the Court of Appeals.