Jury Bias

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In United States v. Kecheczian, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a trial court mistakenly  allowed a juror to decide an aggravated identity theft and possession of unauthorized access devices case, when the juror admitted during jury selection that she had her social security number previously stolen and she was unable to explicitly state that she could put her personal biases aside.

BACKGROUND FACTS

After receiving a tip that Mr. Kechedzian was linked to a fugitive operating a large credit card fraud ring, federal agents conducted a trash pull from Kechedzian’s residence. In his trash, they found two counterfeit credit cards and, based on this, the agents obtained a search warrant. The resulting search of Kechedzian’s residence and cars uncovered two USB drives containing 1,451 stolen credit card numbers in text files, a Bluetooth-enabled “skimming device” commonly used to steal credit card information from gas station pumps, and several cards with stolen data re-encoded on the magnetic strips. Bank records revealed that many of the stolen card numbers had been used fraudulently at gas stations and other retail establishments across the United States.

Kechedzian was charged with two counts of possession of 15 or more Unauthorized Access Devices and two counts of Aggravated Identity Theft. The case proceeded to trial. At the beginning of jury selection, the federal district court judge read a general statement of the case, laying out the charges against Kechedzian. The judge then asked the following:

“Does anyone feel, just based on the charges in this case, based on what this case is about, that they could not be fair and impartial to both sides? Does anyone feel that way at this point in time?”

Juror # 3 raised her hand. From there, she informed the court she was a past victim of identity fraud. Furthermore, she did not know whether she could put aside her biases. Later, at sidebar, defense counsel sought to have Juror # 3 excused for cause. However, the judge denied the motion.

“I think at the end of the day she confirmed or committed to the principles of the presumption of innocence and burden of proof,” said the judge. “I would deny the motion.” Consequently, Juror # 3 sat on Kechedzian’s jury.

The jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict, and Kechedzian was sentenced to 65 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. The district court also ordered $114,134.76 in restitution. Kechedzian timely appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & DECISION

The Court of Appeals began by saying the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants a verdict by an impartial jury, and the bias or prejudice of even a single juror is enough to violate that guarantee. Accordingly, the presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless. The error requires a new trial without a showing of actual prejudice.  And any doubts regarding bias must be resolved against the juror. One important mechanism for ensuring impartiality is voir dire, which enables the parties to probe potential jurors for prejudice. After voir dire, counsel may challenge a prospective juror for cause, and a partial or biased juror should be removed if there is a showing of either implied or actual bias.

“Here, Kechedzian alleges bias under both theories,” said the Court.

Actual Bias Analysis

It explained that actual bias is the more common ground for excusing jurors for cause. Actual bias is the existence of a state of mind that leads to an inference that the person will not act with entire impartiality. Actual bias involves an inability to act impartially or a refusal to weigh the evidence properly It can be revealed through a juror’s express answers during voir dire, but it can also be revealed by circumstantial evidence during questioning.

The Court said that in contrast, implied bias is presumed only in extraordinary cases. “In analyzing implied bias, we look to whether an average person in the position of the juror in controversy would be prejudiced.”

Implied Bias Analysis

This Court described “implied bias” as applying to those extreme situations where the relationship between a prospective juror and some aspect of the litigation is such that it is highly unlikely that the average person could remain impartial in his deliberations under the circumstances.  Furthermore, the implied bias inquiry is an objective one. Even if a juror states or believes that she can be impartial, the court may find implied bias based on the circumstances.

The Court noted that here, although Juror # 3 was previously a victim of identity theft, this is not the type of “extreme” situation where we find implied bias. “Thus, we focus our analysis on the actual bias inquiry,” said the Court.

The Court reasoned that Juror #3 was ultimately asked if she could set aside her feelings, and act impartially and fairly to both sides of the case. She responded: “I believe so, yes.” The Court said that statement—“I believe so, yes”—appears somewhat equivocal. However, none of Juror #3’s equivocal statements could be understood as affirmative statements of impartiality. The Court reasoned that here, Juror #3 explicitly noted that she was unsure if she could put her personal biases aside.

“A juror can understand the presumption of innocence and burden of proof, yet still let personal prejudice infect her ability to be impartial.”

“When a juror is unable to state that she will serve fairly and impartially despite being asked repeatedly for such assurances, we can have no confidence that the juror will lay aside her biases or her prejudicial personal experiences and render a fair and impartial verdict,” said the Court. “Because this is precisely what occurred here, the district court was obligated to excuse Juror #3 for cause under an actual bias theory.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. In my trial experience, potential jurors who have suffered as victims of crime tend to be pro-prosecution. A potential juror who does not know if they can be fair or impartial should be excused for cause. Period.