Wright v. State

Decision Date01 December 2021
Docket Number3D18-2430
Parties Samuel WRIGHT, Appellant, v. The STATE of Florida, Appellee.
CourtFlorida District Court of Appeals

Carlos J. Martinez, Public Defender, and Andrew Stanton, Miami, Assistant Public Defender, for appellant.

Ashley Moody, Tallahassee, Attorney General, and Brian H. Zack, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.



Samuel Wright appeals from his convictions and sentences after a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and burglary. He asserts that the trial court reversibly erred by refusing to excuse a prospective juror for cause. We agree and reverse.

During voir dire, the following exchange occurred between defense counsel and the juror at issue:

[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: So can a completely innocent person be wrongfully accused of a crime?
(The juror shakes her head in the negative.)

Defense counsel later asked the panel to raise their hand "if you think if I am innocent and I am wrongfully accused of a crime, I will absolutely take the stand and testify on my own behalf?" The juror at issue was one of a handful of prospective jurors who raised their hands. After these exchanges, no attempt was made to rehabilitate the juror at issue.

Wright moved to excuse the juror for cause based on her statements regarding the presumption of innocence. The State argued that the juror's responses reflected only confusion as to the question as presented. The trial court agreed that the juror appeared "somewhat confused" and denied Wright's motion. Wright exercised a peremptory challenge to remove the juror from the panel. Later, the trial court also denied Wright's request for an additional peremptory challenge to excuse another juror who ultimately sat on the jury.1 The jury convicted Wright of the crimes as charged, and the trial court sentenced him to life imprisonment on the first-degree murder charge and forty years on the armed robbery and burglary charges. Wright timely appealed.

"We review a trial court's decision to deny a challenge for cause to a potential juror for an abuse of discretion." Rivas v. Sandoval, 319 So. 3d 744, 746 (Fla. 3d DCA 2021). "The test for determining juror competency is whether the juror can lay aside any bias or prejudice and render a verdict solely on the evidence presented and the instructions on the law given by the court." Busby v. State, 894 So. 2d 88, 95 (Fla. 2004). "An evaluation of a juror's ability to render a verdict based solely on the evidence and law must take in account ‘all of the questions and answers posed to or received from the juror.’ "

Rivas, 319 So. 3d at 747 (quoting Matarranz, 133 So. 3d at 484 ).

When a juror makes a statement that calls into question the juror's ability to serve, our Supreme Court allows for liberal rehabilitation to show the statement reflected only a momentary and passing confusion of the law, rather than a firm belief or inborn bias:

[C]ourts and counsel also find themselves addressing jurors who misunderstand aspects of the law and the judicial process. These misunderstandings are based not on personal experience and beliefs, but on a lack of familiarity with or misinformation concerning the law. We clarify today that courts and counsel are correct to engage prospective jurors in a dialogue addressing their partialities, biases, prejudices, and misconceptions when they are rooted in a lack of familiarity with the judicial system as part of an effort to rehabilitate in contrast to those immutable opinions and attitudes that arise from personal life experiences and firmly held beliefs. Florida law allows the rehabilitation of jurors whose responses in voir dire raise concerns about their impartiality. Concerns that stem from misinformation and confusion concerning the law or process are ripe for discussion and redress through rehabilitation.

Matarranz, 133 So. 3d at 485–86 (citations omitted). At the same time, however, such rehabilitation is not just liberally available, it is also required if the juror is to serve: "When a juror's last response indicates that the juror is potentially prejudiced, and the response is not retracted or modified, the juror must be stricken for cause." Marquez v. State, 721 So. 2d 1206, 1207 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998).

We find that the responses of the juror at issue, when taken at face value, raise concerns about her ability to serve as an...

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