Peremptory Challenges: Discouraging or Inviting Discrimination in Jury Selection?

During the process of jury selection, attorneys from either side may seek to remove jurors they deem unfit to serve.  A “for cause” challenge allows attorneys to exclude potential jurors that do not meet the standard criteria or cannot remain impartial when applying the law.

A peremptory challenge, on the other hand, permits attorneys to excuse potential jurors without any explanation.  The Federal and State Constitutions allow attorneys to use a limited number of peremptory challenges as long as jurors are not rejected based on their race, gender, religion or class.  New Jersey courts have established a specific analysis that allows parties to contest a peremptory challenge if it is believed to be discriminatory.

In State v. Andujar, the Defendant was accused of stabbing his roommate multiple times with a knife.  A few days after the incident, the roommate died as a result of the stab wounds. In 2017, the Defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and two weapons offenses.

However, the Defendant appealed his conviction stating that his right to be tried by an impartial jury, selected free from discrimination, was violated when the State singled out and ran a criminal background check on one prospective juror.

During jury selection, one potential juror was asked extensively about their interaction with law enforcement and their views on the criminal justice system.

The State challenged that juror “for cause” stating that his familiarity with certain legal terminology and his relationship to people that engage in criminal activity raises the question of whether or not he respects the criminal justice system and his role as a juror.

The trial court judge was not persuaded that this juror’s background negatively impacted his ability to serve on a jury, and therefore the State’s application to dismiss the juror was denied.

Typically, the next step for the State would be to exercise peremptory challenge to get that juror removed.  Instead, the State ran a criminal background check on that prospective juror and when they found an outstanding warrant, they arranged for his arrest.

On July 13, 2021, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey found two main problems with the State’s approach: (1) the matter of when criminal background check on a potential juror is appropriate should be decided by the court, not a party to the case, and (2) it appears that the State did not exercise a peremptory challenge in order to avoid the possibility that the Defendant would contest that challenge.

The Court held that since the State alone possesses the ability to unilaterally conduct background checks, it would be wholly unjust to allow any party to conduct such unauthorized checks on prospective jurors that they wish to remove.  Instead, a party must request and obtain permission from a trial judge after presenting a reasonable argument as to why that background check is necessary.

The Court also held that due to the nature of the voir dire questioning and the basis of the State’s initial “for cause” challenge, it appeared that the State sought to avoid exercising a peremptory challenge and the possibility that the Defendant would successfully contest it for discrimination.

Therefore, the Court decided that the State’s conduct violated the Defendant’s right to an impartial jury selected free from discrimination. As a result, his conviction was reversed and his case was remanded for a new trial.

Thus, although peremptory challenges may invite implicit bias to the jury selection process, the disregard for the appropriate analysis and procedures may reveal any actual discrimination.

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