In State v. Guevara Diaz the WA Court of Appeals held that seating a juror without questioning from either defense counsel or the court into her ability to be fair can never be harmless and requires a new trial without a showing of prejudice.
The State charged Mr. Diaz with one count of second degree rape and one count of third degree rape. At the beginning of trial, the judge explained to the jury that he and the attorneys would be asking them questions, first with a questionnaire and then orally. The judge told the potential jurors that counsel had prepared a questionnaire and pointed out that each juror had “the opportunity to be questioned outside the presence of the other jurors in the event that certain questions are answered yes.”
Thirteen jurors stated that they wished to be questioned outside the presence of other jurors. Seven of them had answered they could not “be fair.” Six others, including juror 23, who also answered that they “could not be fair” did not ask to be questioned outside the presence of other potential jurors.
At the conclusion of jury selection, the court seated two jurors who said that they could not be fair. One of those jurors included juror 23. The jury found Mr. Diaz guilty of one count of second degree rape and one count of third degree rape (this conviction was later overturned on double jeopardy grounds).
On appeal, Mr. Diaz argued that the trial court violated his constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury by allowing a biased juror to serve.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
First, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court should not have allowed juror 23 to serve because she expressed actual bias without further inquiry.
“A criminal defendant has a federal and state constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury. Seating a biased juror violates this right. Because the presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless, seating an actually biased juror requires a new trial without a showing of actual prejudice.”
Second, the Court held that juror 23 demonstrated actual bias when she answered “No” to the fairness question.
The Court explained that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of the Washington Constitution both guarantee a criminal defendant the right to trial by an impartial jury. To protect this right, a party may challenge a juror for cause. Actual bias provides a basis to challenge a juror for cause.
“The trial court should have addressed this actual bias by questioning juror 23 or allowing defense counsel to question her outside the hearing of other jurors,” said the Court. “Under the circumstances of this case, any court questioning also should have occurred outside the hearing of other jurors because of defense counsel’s viable concern over questioning potentially biased jurors in front of the jury pool.”
With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Mr. Diaz’s conviction and remanded his case for a new trial.