An upstate appeals court ordered a new trial for a defendant who was serving a 46-year-to-life sentence for sexual assault because the trial judge failed to inquire further when seven potential jurors raised doubts about their impartiality during voir dire.

Sullivan County Court Judge Michael McGuire (See Profile) denied the defense’s requests to dismiss the jurors for cause. Because the defendant, Noel Russell, exhausted his peremptory challenges in preventing the jurors from being seated, he was denied a fair trial, a 4-0 Appellate Division, Third Department, panel ruled April 3 in People v. Russell, 105083. “When a juror’s impartiality is in doubt, it is the court’s obligation to make further inquiries and to excuse the juror if the doubt is not fully dispelled,” Justice Elizabeth Garry (See Profile) wrote for the panel.

Russell, now 40, was convicted in 2012 of predatory sexual assault, incest and other charges in connection with attacks against a young child.

Garry said jurors raised a number of red flags during questioning that should have prompted McGuire to ask them for clarification. For instance, one man said his job as a corrections officer “might” affect his ability to be impartial. A woman said her husband’s work as a sheriff’s deputy could “possibly” cause her to hesitate to give the defendant constitutional protections. Two others said they believed that children who accused their parents of sexual abuse could not be lying or that it is “highly unlikely” they would do so, according to the ruling.

Despite those statements, the potential jurors were not questioned further by McGuire and none made “unequivocal asserts of impartiality,” as required under People v. Chambers, 97 NY2d 419 (2002), and a host of other precedents, the court said.

Justices John Lahtinen (See Profile), Leslie Stein (See Profile) and William McCarthy (See Profile) joined in the ruling.