Sometimes Being Fair and Impartial is Just Not Enough

The First District Court of Appeals, which includes cases in Pensacola, Milton, Fort Walton and Destin, among other cities located in the panhandle of Florida, reversed a case yesterday because the prosecution exercised a “challenge for cause” improperly.

In a nutshell, there are two types of challenges that an attorney can make against a prospective juror being seated as a juror in a criminal or civil case. Depending on the type of case or charge, each side is given a set amount of “peremptory challenges.” A peremptory challenge is basically a challenge the attorney can make without providing a reason. However, opposing counsel may object to a peremptory challenge if he or she believes the challenge is improperly based upon race, sex, or other identifiable classes.

The other type of challenge is called a “challenge for cause.” A challenge for cause is exercised against a juror if there is no reasonable doubt that the challenged juror can be fair and impartial. In Blake v. State, 1D12-1385 (Fla. 1st DCA Feb. 5, 2013), the appellate court reversed a conviction because a prospective juror had merely indicated he was the fiance of a public defender in a different area of the panhandle of Florida. The prospective juror acknowledged that his fiancee talked to him about the types of cases she worked on but also indicated he would have no problem finding a person guilty if the evidence supported such a result. The State moved to strike for cause this prospective juror solely on the basis of his engagement to a public defender employed in a different circuit and over Mr. Blake’s attorney’s objection, the court granted the strike. This is somewhat technically based, but Mr. Blake argued that merely because the State had additional peremptory strikes that the conviction should still be reversed based upon the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling in Ault v. State, 866 So. 2d 674 (Fla. 2003), which, in turn, was based on United States Supreme Court precedent. In Gray v. Mississippi, 481 U.S. 648, 107 S.Ct. 2045, 95 L.Ed.2d 622 (1987) explained that the unexercised peremptory argument assumes that the crucial question in the harmless-error analysis is whether a particular prospective juror is excluded from the jury due to the trial court’s erroneous ruling. Rather, the relevant inquiry is “whether the composition of the jury panel as a whole could possibly have been affected by the trial court’s error.” Ault, 866 So. 2d at 686 (emphasis in original). Based on Ault, the the First District Court of Appeal found that the prosecution’s concession is correct, but its harmless error argument is not, and reversed Mr. Blake’s conviction remanding the case for a new trial. The bottom line is merely because a prospective juror was engaged to a defense attorney was not a sufficient basis for the prosecution, in this case, to challenge the juror for cause because he clearly stated he could be fair and judge the evidence and the facts and convict someone if the prosecution proved their case.