In People v. Johnson (1st Dept. 6/1/2010), the First Department affirmed the defendant's conviction. It rejected the defendant's contention that the trial court erred when it denied a challenge for cause to a prospective juror. The First Department held that it is within the discretion of the court to determine if assurances by potential jurors, as to their ability to be impartial, are unequivocal and credible.
The defendant raised the insanity defense, contending that his criminal acts were divinely commanded. During the initial voir dire, a potential juror stated that she had conducted extensive research and written argument concerning the abolition of the insanity defense. The potential juror further stated that despite her prior experiences and opinions she thought she could be fair and follow the court's instructions, whether she agreed with them or not. The defendant challenged for cause the potential juror, but the court denied the challenge. Thereafter, the defense exercised a peremptory challenge to remove the potential juror.
On appeal the defendant argued that the trial court erred when it denied the challenge for cause. The First Department, applying People v. Arnold, 96 N.Y.2d 358 (2001), held that where potential jurors are in doubt about acting fairly, the court should elicit unequivocal assurances of the juror's ability to be impartial or excuse them. Additionally, it is within the court's discretion to deny a challenge for cause where it determines that the potential juror's statement to be impartial is credible. The court also noted that assurances couched in qualifying terms such as "think" or "try" do not render an otherwise unequivocal answer less so.
Justice Freedman, in dissent, argued that the potential juror's statement was not unequivocal, and therefore the challenge for cause should have been granted. The dissent focused on the critical nature of the insanity defense in this case as well as the repeated statements by the potential juror concerning her bias. (MM/LC)