The jury selection process is a crucial part of any Florida homicide or other criminal trial. Decisions about who winds up determining whether you committed the crime with which you are charged can make or break a case. A Florida appeals court recently reiterated an important protection against discrimination in the jury selection process. The Fourth District Court of Appeal said a judge can’t remove a potential juror from the pool based on his or her religion.
The defendant in this case was among a group of criminal defendants charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in Broward County. During the jury selection phase, state prosecutors sought to use one of their peremptory strikes to keep a woman off the jury because she is a Jehovah’s Witness. One prosecutor told the judge he was concerned that in his experience, Jehovah’s Witnesses decline to “sit in judgment” of others. Although the woman said she would have no problem finding the defendant and the others guilty if the evidence was sufficient, the prosecutor said he thought she would apply a higher burden of proof than required under the law.
The judge eventually agreed to strike the juror from the panel. The defendant filed a motion for a mistrial, which the judge denied. He and the other defendants were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But the Fourth District reversed that conviction on appeal. The court said the woman’s religion was not a sufficient reason for removing her from the panel.
“Nothing in the record showed her religion would prevent her from being a fair and impartial juror,” the court said “Even if the strike were genuinely based on the juror’s religion, a member of a religion that is a cognizable class is protected from being struck from a jury based solely on her faith where there is no evidence that her faith would prevent her from being a fair and impartial juror.”
The court noted that neither the prosecutors nor the judge asked the prospective juror about her religion until after prosecutors requested that she be removed from the jury pool. Meanwhile, the court also observed that the judge said it “would almost be malpractice” for a prosecutor to allow a Jehovah’s Witness to serve on a jury. That, the court said, signaled that the judge based the decision on the woman’s religion, rather than her answers to any other questions during the jury selection process.
As a result, the court sent the case back for a new trial.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a violent crime in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced lawyer. St. Petersburg criminal attorney Will Hanlon is a seasoned lawyer who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of offenses. Call our offices at (727) 897-5413 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case.
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