SJC: Blind people can serve as jurors
Judges would decide on case-by-case basis
IF A BLIND JUROR is called for jury duty, a judge must decide on a case-by-case basis whether that juror is capable of serving, according to a unanimous decision issued Thursday by the Supreme Judicial Court.
The SJC, in an opinion written by Justice Kimberly Budd, ruled in Commonwealth vs. Lawrence Heywood that a judge acted properly in seating a blind juror after questioning him about whether he could serve.
Attorneys for Heywood, the defendant, had argued that the juror could not fully evaluate the photographs and medical records brought as evidence in the case.
Budd wrote that a blind person’s protection against discrimination “dovetails well” with the right of a defendant to be judged by a jury of his or her peers because “peers” include people with disabilities. “Because a cross section of the community necessarily includes, among others, citizens with disabilities, the defendant’s right to a fair jury trial and the protection against discrimination in jury selection work in tandem,” Budd wrote.
The National Federation of the Blind and the Disability Law Center filed an amicus brief arguing that courts cannot bar someone from jury service solely because of a disability.
But Heywood’s attorney Joseph Maggiacomo said he is troubled by the decision. Maggiacomo said his client’s right to a fair trial and an impartial jury “should trump any protections that are afforded to a disabled individual.”
Maggiacomo argued that letting another juror read medical reports and describe pictures to a blind juror means the blind juror is getting another person’s subjective opinion of the evidence.
“We don’t know what happened in that jury room…and to give blind faith that someone would describe a picture the way someone else might see a picture is laughable,” Maggiacomo said.
Heywood was found guilty in Boston Municipal Court of assault and battery causing serious bodily injury after he punched a player-coach in an adult men’s basketball league over a league-related dispute.
Heywood appealed, and one of his arguments was that the judge should have struck one of the jurors, juror number six, for cause because the juror was blind. Maggiacomo argued that the juror could not determine whether the victim suffered serious bodily injury because the juror could not see the victim’s appearance, photographs taken after the attack, and the victim’s medical records.
The juror told the judge during voir dire that his disability would not be an impediment from serving as a juror, and he could access photographic evidence if another juror described it to him.
In this case, she wrote, the ability to see the victim’s face and the photographs were not essential to the determination the jury had to make, and juror six had access to medical records because they were read to him.
Rick Glassman, an attorney with the Disability Law Center, said the ruling is important because the court recognized that having jurors “work together collaboratively” to access information does not affect a defendant’s right to a fair trial. And the SJC is recognizing that a fair jury should reflect the fact that 12 percent of Massachusetts residents have a disability. “If you were to exclude any group of people categorically, you don’t provide a fair trial because you don’t have a fair and representative cross section anymore,” Glassman said.
In their amicus brief, the disability advocacy groups say Massachusetts jurors have reported being turned away from jury service because of blindness. Ruell said she was once patted on the head and told she was wasting her time when she filled out the paperwork to serve on a jury.
The advocates and the Boston Bar Association both asked the court to provide additional guidance on what steps the court should take to accommodate people with disabilities.
Budd’s decision does not get into the issue of assistive technology beyond a footnote noting that there are visual aids, such as screen reader software or professional readers, that might have been preferable to having another juror describe a photograph.Glassman said he hopes that the Trial Court will still develop guidance.
“I think there is widespread misconception about the capacities of blind people and a lot of ignorance about the kinds of things that we use to achieve the goals that we have without using vision,” Ruell said. “I think that with more clarity about what can be done and more suggestions from the court about the kinds of accommodations that would be accepted and acceptable, that would decrease the number of cases and incidents that occur.”