Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Implied bias doctrine disqualifies jurors who are close relatives of the parties involved in a trial, but does not categorically impute bias to coworkers of key trial witnesses.

In U.S. v. Ricardo Mitchell, No. 11-2420 (3d Cir. Aug. 7, 2012), Defendant Mitchell was convicted on charges relating to his possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number. During the judge’s voir dire, Juror No. 28 said that she was a "close cousin" of the prosecutor, and Juror No. 97 said that he was an employee of the police department who worked with Government witnesses. Neither party posed additional questions to the jurors, challenged them for cause, or used a peremptory strike, and both were seated as members of the jury.

Later that day, Mitchell filed a motion to strike Juror 97 for cause. The District Court denied the motion. The jury found Mitchell guilty, and he was sentenced to 15-years’ imprisonment. Mitchell appealed to challenge the presence of both Juror 28 and Juror 97 on the jury.

Addressing the doctrine of implied juror bias — a legal question focusing on whether an average person in the juror’s position would be prejudiced, regardless of actual prejudice — the Court held that it can disqualify jurors "whose connection with the litigation makes it highly unlikely that they can remain impartial adjudicators," citing its earlier dicta in U.S. v. Calabrese, 942 F.2d 218, 224 n.2 (3d Cir. 1991).

Because Mitchell first challenged Juror 28 on appeal – arguing that she should have been excused for cause because, as a "close cousin" to the prosecutor the law categorically imputes bias — the Court reviewed the issue for plain error. The Court observed that a juror’s "consanguinity is the classic example of implied bias," noting Chief Justice Marshall’s discussion in Aaron Burr’s trial for treason. See U.S. v. Burr, 25 F. Cas. 49, 50 (C.C. Va. 1807). But the Court limited the parameters of the implied juror bias doctrine to "close" relatives, rather than distant relatives "whose relationship is sufficiently attenuated so as not to undermine the appearance of fairness in judicial proceedings." Here, the Court found that the record provided only a "bare-bones" description of Juror 28's relationship with the prosecutor, precluding a clear finding as to whether she was a close or distant relative. Therefore, the Court remanded to the District Court for an evidentiary hearing, and if Juror 28 were found to be a close relative, then seating her was plain error requiring a new trial.

As to Juror 97, the Court found that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion to strike. The Court found no basis to "fashion a new category of implied bias for coworkers of police officers who testify as witnesses in a criminal trial."

In a partial dissent, Judge Jordan asserted that Juror 97 should have been presumptively excluded under the implied bias doctrine.





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