Murder conviction tossed after prosecutor conducts background check on only black juror

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A New Jersey appeals court has overturned a murder conviction after the prosecutor conducted a criminal background check on the only black person among the potential jurors, resulting in an arrest.

The decision granted a new trial to Edwin Andujar, 54, who was convicted in 2017 for killing his roommate, report NJ.com and the New Jersey Law Journal. The Legal Profession Blog linked to the Feb. 24 opinion.

The prosecutor had conducted the background check after a judge rejected her for-cause challenge to seating the juror, identified as “F.G.” in the opinion.

Disparate investigation of prospective jurors based on race can constitute unconstitutional racial bias in jury selection in violation of Supreme Court and New Jersey precedent, the appeals court said.

“It is not difficult to surmise that running criminal background checks only on minority jurors could result in a majority jury,” the appeals court said in an opinion by Judge Mary Gibbons Whipple.

“Because the court made no findings of fact concerning the prosecution’s selective use of a criminal record check and granted no relief to the defense whatsoever, defendant’s conviction must be reversed, his sentence vacated, and the matter remanded for a new trial.”

The appeals court said the trial judge could have eliminated the prosecution’s remaining peremptory challenges, could have given additional peremptory challenges to the defense, or could have started jury selection all over again.

Prosecutors said they acted in response to F.G.’s answers to questions during jury selection.

F.G. said he had two cousins who served as police officers, and he had two cousins who had been murdered. He also said he knew “a host of people” who had been accused of crimes, including three friends arrested for selling drugs and a fourth friend charged with gun possession.

F.G. said the friend charged with gun possession had been “trigger locked,” meaning that the charge was the third charge of gun possession, which sent the case to federal court. He also said a lot of his friends “live that lifestyle,” which meant many of his friends are selling drugs.

F.G. said he attended some college, he worked for a city department of public works, and he coached youth football in his spare time. He also said his experiences wouldn’t affect the way he viewed the evidence in the murder case.

Everyone has “a background,” F.G. said, and the backgrounds differ based on where and how a person grows up.

In seeking F.G.’s removal from the jury panel, prosecutors cited his extensive background in the criminal justice system and his friends’ criminal activity. The judge allowed F.G. to be seated.

After the criminal background check, a prosecutor told the judge that F.G. had two prior arrests for domestic violence and an outstanding municipal court warrant. F.G.’s arrest on the warrant took place outside the presence of the other jurors.

The appeals court noted that the background check was conducted without a fingerprint, Social Security number, birth date or even a street address. As a result, there was no way to be sure the records found pertained to F.G.

In addition, the appeals court said, the nature of the municipal warrant is unknown. It could have been the result of unpaid traffic violations.

New Jersey does not bar people from juries because they have been arrested or because they have municipal warrants, the court noted.

The appeals court said the results of the criminal background check should have been read into the record, and the judge should have questioned F.G. outside the presence of jurors about the findings.

The court also noted that performing criminal background checks on potential jurors can discourage jury service.

“The compulsion to appear should not include the threat of arrest if we seek to convincingly assure the citizenry that jury service is an honor and a duty,” the appeals court said.

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