Criminal Voir Dire; Questions Concerning Attitudes about Gun Violence

Com. v. Williams, 2017 WL 6545977 (Pa. Super. 2017), allocatur granted June 25, 2018, appeal docket 20 EAP 2018

Appellant was convicted of attempted murder for firing into a crowd of people during an incident in Philadelphia that started as a fistfight between two rival groups of men and escalated into a firefight.  During jury selection appellant’s counsel sought to question prospective jurors about their attitudes concerning African American men and guns.  The trial court denied the request and the Superior Court affirmed, reasoning there was no basis for such questioning:

Counsel advanced no reason as to why the case might be racially sensitive, but instead baldly stated: “[T]here’s nothing [in the questionnaire] about the current situation that young African American men are constantly in the media talking about guns in – particular guns and shootings and could that possibly impact the prejudice in any way that this case involves a young African American male accused of shooting and having a gun.” N.T. Jury Selection, 10/7/15, at 43-44.

Slip Op. at 7.

The court elaborated that “counsel’s own explanation as to why he wanted to ask those questions demonstrates his intent to use this line of reasoning as a framing device for Appellant’s case.  The court determined this is an inappropriate use of voir dire:

[T]he purpose of voir dire is to ensure the empaneling of a fair and impartial jury capable of following the instructions on the law as provided by the trial court.” Commonwealth v. Paolello, 665 A.2d 439, 450 (Pa. 1995) (citation omitted).

Slip Op. at 5.

The court continued:

“Voir dire is not to be utilized as a tool for the attorneys to ascertain the effectiveness of potential trial strategies.” Paolello, 665 A.2d at 451 (holding that counsel was not permitted to question jurors during voir dire about their attitudes toward alcohol in case where victim’s death involved alcohol consumption). The trial court has discretion in determining whether counsel may pose separate questions to potential jurors during voir dire. See Commonwealth v. Mattison, 82 A.3d 386, 397 (Pa. 2013) (citation omitted) (holding trial court did not abuse its discretion when it precluded defense counsel’s proposed questions to jury venire about defendant’s prior murder conviction). Indeed, despite counsel’s request, the court may decline to ask voir dire questions on race where particularly sensitive racial issues are not present, and raising such issues risks unnecessarily injecting race into the proceedings. See Commonwealth v. Richardson, 473 A.2d 1361, 1363 (Pa. 1984). See also Commonwealth v. Glaspy, 616 A.2d 1359, 1362 (Pa. 1992) (describing point at which racial considerations were introduced into the case and it became appropriate for the trial court to individually question potential jurors on prejudices they may have held).

Slip Op. at 5-6.

The issue, rephrased for clarity, is:

Did the trial court abuse its discretion in precluding the questioning of jurors about their views on guns and gun violence during voir dire?