State v. Andujar, 247 N.J. 275 (2021)


In 2017, Edwin Andujar was tried and convicted of first-degree murder by an Essex County jury. In his appeal, Andujar argued that he did not receive a fair trial because prosecutors went to excessive lengths to remove one person, a Black man named “F.G.” from the jury.

During voir dire, F.G., a resident of Newark, said he had friends, family, and neighborhood acquaintances who had served time in jail, but also others who had been victims of crime. He repeatedly asserted he could be a fair and impartial juror. Nonetheless, prosecutors asked the judge to remove F.G. from the jury pool for cause, arguing he could not be a fair juror because he had “an awful lot of background,” used “all of the lingo about… the criminal justice system,” and that because his “close friends hustle [and] engaged in criminal activity,” it “draws into question whether [F.G] respects the criminal justice system.”

Defense counsel objected. The trial judge said there was “no doubt in [his] mind” that F.G. would be a fair and impartial juror and denied the prosecutors’ motion. The prosecutors did not exercise a peremptory challenge to remove F.G. and he was seated on the jury.

The next day, the prosecutors revealed they had conducted a criminal background check on F.G. and found he had an outstanding municipal warrant. F.G. was excused from the jury for cause and arrested after he left the courtroom. The seated jury found Andujar guilty.

On appeal, Andujar’s attorneys argued that F.G. had been singled out and unfairly dismissed, noting he had been the only individual in the jury pool subjected to a criminal background check. Had the prosecutors not run the background check and instead moved to strike F.G. using a peremptory challenge, Andujar’s attorneys would have been able to challenge their motives for racial bias. But because they had F.G. arrested and removed for cause, the trial procedures did not call for scrutiny of their motivations.

The N.J. Supreme Court sided with Andujar and granted his appeal, noting in its decision that the prosecution’s actions may have stemmed from implicit racial bias against F.G. It overturned Andujar’s conviction.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision is the first official recognition of implicit bias in the justice system. Going forward, discrimination complaints can be based solely on implicit bias. The decision and the ensuing reforms can serve as a model for other states. The ruling also limits the government’s ability to do criminal background checks on jurors, requiring prosecutors to get the court’s permission before taking such an action. That assures would-be jurors that they can perform their civic duty without fears of prosecutorial overreach.

The Court’s decision did not end with reversal of Andujar’s conviction. The Court also convened a Judicial Conference on Jury Selection and formed a committee to study ways to eliminate bias in the jury selection process.

In April 2022, the group detailed 25 ways the state could expand the jury pools and make them more fair. These included selecting prospective jurors names from state labor records as well as voter registration rolls; restoring juror eligibility for individuals with prior criminal convictions; including questions about gender, race, and ethnicity in juror qualification questionnaires; and requiring implicit bias training for attorneys, judges and staff.

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