Florida High Court Agrees That Juror Should Have Been Excused for Cause – Matarranz v. State

October 2, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

A lot of people see jury duty as an annoyance, but it’s also a very important job. Juries can send people to prison, which means they should be selected carefully. People with biases are typically excused from a jury panel, often after questioning from the attorneys or the judge about their feelings and past experiences. But sometimes, a juror slips through the cracks, or one side pushes to keep a juror it feels is biased toward the result it wants. In Matarranz v. State, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a juror was not competent to serve on the panel that convicted Rafael Matarranz because she had demonstrated that she couldn’t be a fair and impartial arbiter of the case. The decision means Mararranz, who was convicted of burglary and first-degree murder, will get a new trial. It also clarified how jurors may be removed for cause in Florida.

Jury selection began normally, with the judge giving jurors an overview of procedures for criminal trials and of the charges against Matarranz. When the judge asked if anyone felt they could not be a fair juror after hearing the charges, the juror at issue raised her hand and said she had reservations about the burglary charge. She elaborated that her cousin had been wrongly convicted of fraud because he had been given a bogus check. She also said her family had been burgled when she was a child—her Christmas presents were stolen from under the tree—and it had affected her a lot. Under questioning, she seemed to waver between saying she could and couldn’t be impartial. The defense ultimately moved to strike her for cause, but the judge disallowed it and the defense used a peremptory challenge instead. A motion for an additional peremptory challenge, based on the inclusion of other jurors, was not granted. Matarranz was found guilty.

The Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction, but wrote separately to find no manifest error by the judge in retaining this juror. Its decision conflicted with one by the Fourth District, Huber v. State, so the Florida Supreme Court granted review.

The high court started by finding that Matarranz’s objections were preserved sufficiently for review by the motion to strike her for cause. It then agreed that the juror should have been struck because she showed she couldn’t be objective. Any reasonable doubt as to the juror’s impartiality is adequate to excuse him or her for cause, according to past cases. Importantly, it said, assurances of impartiality the juror makes are not enough to defeat excusal. It’s fine for parties to engage prospective jurors in questioning to correct wrong ideas about the law or the justice system, the court said, but jurors cannot be “rehabilitated” by a few minutes of questioning when the problem is firmly held beliefs. In this case, the high court said, the trial court may even have “embarrassed” the juror into changing her mind about whether she could be impartial, after initial responses that concerned both sides. As a result, Matarranz did not get a fair trial, the court said, and should get a new one.

I am pleased to see this decision, because it has important implications for people facing serious criminal charges in Florida. Our Constitution requires fair and impartial juries. This is so important and fundamental that we have to follow it even if it means scrapping the prior trial and starting over. Otherwise, Florida prosecutors would be free to include all of the blatantly biased jurors they could get away with including, and the right to a jury trial would be undermined. As the Florida Supreme Court clarified here, this means casting a wide net when excluding jurors: excluding people who provide a basis for any reasonable doubt about their ability to be fair. This may seem like a high standard, but because juries send people to prison or sometimes order deaths, I believe the standard should be high.

Based in Miami, Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients who are facing serious criminal charges in South Florida and around the state. We answer the phone 24 hours a day and seven days a week, because we know police don’t stop making arrests after business hours. To learn more or set up a free consultation, call us today at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email.

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