Juror’s Racial Bias Tainted NJ Convictions

     TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – Three jurors who had shown “deeply rooted latent racial bias” during a carjacking trial were wrongly allowed to remain on the case, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled.
     In the underlying case, Malik Smith and Rashon Brown faced a 2012 joint trial in Union County Superior Court for the carjacking of a young woman’s Infiniti.
     Prosecutors said the pair then rammed into police cruisers that attempted to apprehend them, and then fled on foot.
     Brown was shot in the foot and apprehended on a woman’s porch where he was hiding under a pile of clothing. Smith was arrested later.
     After they were found guilty on theft and weapons charges, Smith and Brown were sentenced to 23 and 25 years, respectively,
     They appealed on the basis of what happened on the second day of the jury deliberations.
     A older white woman on the jury, Juror No. 4, told two fellow jurors that she saw two black men that morning in her neighborhood, and that she suspected their presence could have a connection to the trial.
     Both Juror Nos. 5 and 12 agreed with this woman’s suspicions and advised her to tell the sheriff’s officer.
     The jurors were questioned by the trial judge allowed to stay on the case.
     A three-judge appellate panel said Tuesday that they were troubled by the judge’s reaction to Juror No. 4’s potential racial bias.
     Under questioning by the judge, Juror No. 4 said she had seen the two black men in her neighborhood when she was getting into her car.
     “I was concerned about my wellbeing,” she said, according to a transcript included in the decision. “I don’t know if, you know, I was going to be stalked someplace, because I mean I don’t know these people. They certainly don’t live around there, and they don’t hang around there.”
     Juror No. 5, who worked next to where Juror No. 4 lived, meanwhile told the judge that the neighborhood was mostly occupied by “mostly Italian and white people,” with “really no black people around there.”
     The ruling says the trial judge assuaged the jurors’ fears about being stalked and legitimated their racially biased fears by saying the court could provide more security and better ensure the anonymity of the jurors.
     “These views are utterly irreconcilable with one of the core principles of this State’s judiciary, the delivery of equal justice under law to all of our citizens,” Judge Jose Fuentes wrote for the appellate panel Monday.
     Upon hearing the two jurors’ remarks, Smith’s defense counsel initially said he wasn’t sure he wanted to remove the juror. Once Brown’s attorney moved for a mistrial, however, Smith’s attorney joined in a motion to remove Jurors Nos. 4 and 5.
     In denying the motion, the trial judge told the full jury during open court that he wasn’t concerned about the jurors’ suspicions, and that he couldn’t say whether it would be unusual for two black men to be in Juror No. 4’s neighborhood.
     “I don’t think that that’s even an expression of racism,” the judge said.
     The Appellate Division ruled Tuesday that the trial judge abused his discretion in failing to remove Juror No. 4, and even “endorsed the juror’s misguided apprehensions” about whether the two black men were suspicious or connected to the trial.
     “Those comments coming from a sitting judge in a criminal trial are plainly inappropriate under any circumstances, but especially when they are uttered in a trial involving two African-American defendants,” Fuentes wrote.
     Fuentes called the juror’s denial of racial bias “self-serving.”
     “Her initial instinctive, subliminal association of race with criminality or wrong-doing far trumped her subsequent assurances of impartiality,” Jose Fuentes wrote. “In her willingness to come forward and candidly report her misgivings, Juror 4 also revealed her unawareness of how engrained her racial bias was in her subconscious … [which is] one of the most pernicious, unintended aspects of our jury system.”
     Smith and Brown’s convictions have been vacated, and the case now goes back for a retrial.

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