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Second Circuit Orders New Trial Where Voir Dire Did not Screen for Bias: Nieves

The Court held that gang bias was an important thing to ask about in this case and as it was not allowed, reversal was appropriate.

Facts:  Court Rejects Nieves' voir dire Questions and holds Inadequate Jury Selection

In May 2019, Nieves was indicted on four counts of witness retaliation and witness tampering offenses. Prior to trial, both sides proposed gang-related voir dire questions to screen for potential gang-related biases.

Voir dire proceeded typically until the court announced it would begin peremptory challenges. At this point, defense counsel objected and urged the court to do further inquiry of the jurors in line with the proposed questions. The court rejected the suggested questions as either “inappropriate or otherwise not useful.”

After the jury was sworn but prior to opening statements, Nieves moved for a mistrial arguing that voir dire had been inadequate based in part on counsel not having the opportunity to object to the court’s dismissal of jurors for cause because the proceedings moved too quickly and because the court’s scant questioning resulted in counsel hearing many jurors say five to ten words at most. The district court quickly disposed of these arguments and denied the motion.

Second Circuit:  Failure to Screen Jurors for Relevant Biases Mandates Reversal

On appeal, the Second Circuit noted the extreme deference given to trial courts in conducting voir dire. However, the court noted that discretion is not boundless. The court had often reiterated the basic principle that “[t]here must be sufficient information elicited on voir dire to permit a defendant to intelligently exercise” for-cause and peremptory challenges.

The Second circuit held that (1) prejudice against people associated with gangs represented a pervasive bias relevant to a key dynamic likely to arise at trial, and (2) the district court neglected to inquire about, or warn against, that bias.

As to the second holding, the court concluded the district court must provide some opportunity for prospective jurors to be meaningfully screened for biases relevant to a particular defendant or the charges against that defendant. Deciding how to do so remains within the district court’s expansive discretion. However, in this case, the Second Circuit found the district court exceeded its bounds of near-unbridled discretion. The district court did not ask about any gang-related bias, notwithstanding that the government’s central theory of the case. In fact, the court deliberately declined to mention that the case concerned gangs at all.

Because the district court’s failure on voir dire to explore-or take other steps specifically to counter-potential prejudice unfairly deprived Nieves of the opportunity to discover a pervasive bais relevant to an issue critical to the government’s case, the Second Circuit concluded that the district court abused its discretion.

Judgment was the district court was vacated and the case remanded for a new trial.

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