The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the guilty verdict delivered by a jury that included a blind juror. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Heywood.
The victim and the defendant played together on an adult basketball team. During a league event in the spring of 2015, the defendant sucker punched the victim on the right side of his face. The victim’s orbital bone and cheekbone were fractured and he suffered from retinal bleeding. Doctors surgically addressed the injuries by inserting titanium plates into the victim’s face (in an effort to stabilize the bones). The titanium plates became cold when the outside temperature was cold, and the victim had to apply warm compresses to his face to prevent the titanium plates from becoming uncomfortably cold. The defendant’s punch also damaged nerves in the victim’s cheek, resulting in a significant loss of feeling. A Roxbury District Court jury found the defendant guilty of assault and battery causing serious bodily injury and the defendant appealed. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.
The primary point of appeal for the defendant was the trial judge’s decision to allow a blind juror to sit on the case. The federal and state constitutions guarantee a criminal defendant the right to be tried by an impartial jury that is both competent and qualified. During the jury empanelment process, one of the potential jurors disclosed that he was blind but would be able to serve as long as one of his fellow jurors could describe the photographic evidence to him. The trial judge was satisfied the juror would be able to competently render judgment on the defendant and seated him. The defendant’s trial attorney did not object to the blind juror being seated, but on appeal the defendant argued the inclusion of the blind juror was an error. The Supreme Judicial Court disagreed. The Court pointed out that a trial judge is afforded considerable discretion during the jury selection process, including the determination of whether a juror is competent to serve. In this case, the Court pointed out that the trial judge individually questioned the blind juror to evaluate his competence. The juror was confident he would be able to evaluate the evidence with the assistance of his fellow jurors, and the judge believed him. The SJC also noted that there was no issue of identification in this case, and the nature of the victim’s injuries were not clear from the photographic evidence. The serious bodily injury element was proven largely by the victim’s medical records, which were easily read to the blind juror. Finally, there is a Massachusetts statute that provides every person shall have the equal opportunity to serve as a juror, including physically handicapped people, unless the judge finds such service is not feasible. It would be appropriate for the judicial system to make reasonable modifications to normal policies and practices to allow disabled people to serve as jurors, and that’s what happened in this case. Given the nature of the evidence in this case and the nature of the juror’s disability, it was appropriate to allow him to serve and the defendant’s conviction was accordingly upheld.