Supreme Court Rules on the Validity of a Juror's Recantation of Bias During Voir Dire

By Scott Kalish

Last Thursday the Supreme Court decided Matarranz v. State of Florida, on appeal from the Third DCA, which centered on whether a trial court erred when it denied the defendant’s motion to strike a juror for cause when during voir dire the juror expressed her concern that she could not be impartial because of past life experiences. The juror at issue explained that when she was a child, her family was the victim of a burglary and that she feared she could not be impartial because the trial involved a charge of burglary. On the following day of voir dire the juror, after questioning by the judge and prosecutor and reflecting on her previous statements, explained that she now thought she could be impartial. The defense ultimately motioned to strike the juror for cause, citing her previous statements as evidence of the threat of partiality. The trial court denied the motion to strike for cause. The defense used a peremptory challenge to strike the juror. After a conviction following trial, the defense appealed to the Third DCA, and finally to the Supreme Court, challenging the decision affirming the defendant’s conviction at the trial court.
The Supreme Court granted review of this case to clarify the application of its holding in Singer v. State, 109 So.2d 7 (Fla. 1959), which requires a juror to be excused when there is a reasonable basis to doubt impartiality. The Court reasoned that the trial court should accept a juror’s recantation as evidence of his or her ability to be impartial when it appears to be genuine and not when “the juror has reached a sufficient level of discomfort to reject or conceal genuinely-held feelings.” The Matarranz majority found that it appeared the juror was “embarrassed” into retracting her previous statements by the skillful questioning of counsel and therefore not a genuine recantation of her earlier statements. The Court further recognized that it was “the majority of her responses and particularly her initial reactions [that] raised sufficient doubt as to her ability to be impartial.”
The Court rejected the per se “recantation” rule, which allowed a juror who recants statements of personal bias to nevertheless serve on a jury, provided that the trial court determines he or she may render an impartial verdict. The Court designated as inappropriate a trial court’s attempt at rehabilitating a juror when he or she expresses reservation based on actual life experiences. The Court concluded that although the this juror was not empaneled, the defendant nevertheless suffered prejudice because he had one less peremptory challenge to use against other objectionable jurors.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Labarga (joined by Justices Pariente, Lewis, and Perry, and therefore a majority) also rejected the per se “recantation” rule because of the difficulty involved with a juror’s overcoming a belief which based on actual life experiences. Justice Labarga concluded that he would have extended the majority’s holding by ruling that “where a juror’s expressed reservations about his or her ability to be fair and impartial arise from the juror’s personal experience, true ‘rehabilitation’ of that juror is not possible.”
Justice Canady in his dissent maintained that section 913.03 (10), Fla. Stat. (2009) should control because the statute provides that the trial court is to make the determination as to whether a juror can be impartial. Therefore the dissent asserted that the majority’s decision is a violation of the separation of powers between the legislative and the judicial branches. The dissent pointed out that the majority’s ruling incorrectly takes away the trial court’s “unique vantage point” it had when making this determination.