Despite her assurance that she could be fair and impartial, a prospective juror who admitted her bias in favor of police should have been excused for cause, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held in Com. v. Penn, __ A.3d __ (No. 1522 WDA 2014, filed Feb. 1, 2016). During voir dire, prospective juror R.Z. indicated on her written questionnaire that she would “be more likely to believe the testimony of a … law enforcement officer because of his or her job.” R.Z. offered similar testimony and acknowledged that she has worked as a security officer and her boyfriend is a police officer. R.Z. also testified that she thought she could be fair and impartial in assessing an officer’s testimony. The trial court denied defense counsel’s challenge to excuse R.Z. for cause. Counsel used a peremptory challenge and eventually exhausted all of his peremptory challenges. At the jury trial the Commonwealth presented two police officers as witnesses. The jury convicted the defendant of drug-related charges and the present appeal followed.
On appeal, a unanimous Superior Court panel vacated and remanded for a new trial, holding that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to excuse R.Z. for cause. Writing for the Court, Judge Olson stated that a challenge for cause must be sustained where a juror “demonstrates through his conduct and answers a likelihood of prejudice.” The Court concluded that R.Z.’s written and oral statements indicated that she was incapable of “rendering a fair, impartial and unbiased verdict,” notwithstanding her assurance to the trial court that she would “be fair.” R.Z.’s admitted bias in favor of the police was especially troublesome to the Court because the Commonwealth’s only witnesses at trial were police officers. The Court noted that R.Z.’s bias “rested on a firm bedrock,” given her personal connections to law enforcement. Finally, the Court held that the trial court’s error was not harmless because the defendant was forced to use a peremptory challenge to excuse R.Z., and then exhausted his peremptories before the jury was seated.