The attorney for a man convicted of attempted murder after a fistfight escalated into gunshots fired blindly into a crowd argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that the jury in his client’s case should have been more thoroughly screened for victims of gun violence.
On Wednesday in Philadelphia, the justices heard argument in Commonwealth v. Williams. Raheem Williams’ 25- to 50-year prison sentence was affirmed by the state Superior Court, which rejected his argument that the jury questionnaire was not sufficient to root out potential bias regarding guns or gun violence, as wall as race.
“Voir dire is not an appropriate opportunity for counsel to assess the value of particular trial strategies,” Superior Court President Judge Jack Panella wrote in the court’s opinion. “The trial court acted well within its discretion in not permitting counsel to individually question jurors about their racial attitudes or views on firearms. Thus, we find the court did not err when it refused to permit defense counsel’s proposed line of questioning.”
Michael Wiseman, Williams’ attorney, repeated his argument before the Supreme Court on Wednesday. He argued that the trial judge was more interested in getting jury selection over with than questioning jurors for potential bias.
“The thing that was most in the court’s mind was speed,” Wiseman said.
Justice David Wecht asked Wiseman why trial counsel did not conduct further voir dire.
Wiseman said that the proceedings went so quickly and so little information was obtained from the jurors that “the lawyers could not intelligently pre-emptively challenge” the jurors.
“I’m not saying you have to have jurors up there for days, but asking reasonable follow-ups is something you should be able to do,” Wiseman said.
Justice Kevin Dougherty asked Wiseman whether or not the jurors responded to questionnaires that asked if they could be fair and impartial, seeming to suggest that the questionnaires alone would suffice.
Wiseman answered yes, but “the form is to be used in conjunction with voir dire.”
For the prosecution, Assistant District Attorney Anne Palmer of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office said a lack of information on the record meant the defense did not preserve a challenge to be brought up on appeal.
“The lack of preservation is an issue in terms of developing a record,” she said.
Wecht then focused the discussion on a juror who told the trial judge she had a relative who was killed in a shooting, but the trial judge did not explore the matter further.
“The record is not well-developed, but it was understood that the juror would not be seated,” Palmer said.
Justice Max Baer later quipped, “It’s refreshing to see the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office defending a jury verdict. That doesn’t happen very often.”