Appellate court finds defendant’s case impaired by trial judge’s voir dire limitations
An Illinois appellate court reversed the conviction of Stanley Jones for the aggravated criminal sexual assault of Timothy Kester on the grounds that Jones’ attorney was not allowed by the trial judge to question potential jurors about their attitudes towards homosexuality.
The decision was announced on December 27.
Both Jones and Kester were incarcerated at the Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago at the time the incident took place.
According to the opinion for the unanimous panel by Justice Margaret Stanton McBride, Kester was 20 and Jones was 51 at the time in question. Jones had a reputation as a jailhouse lawyer who assisted other inmates with appeals of their convictions, and Kester was seeking his assistance in figuring out ways to appeal his own conviction. Kester requested that he be moved into Jones’s cell. Jones claims that he had informed Kester that he was bisexual, prior to Kester asking to move into the cell.
Kester claims that Jones used a razor blade to force him to submit to anal sex in their cell. Jones claims that Kester had complained to him about leg cramps and that he was giving Kester a massage when the younger man responded to his touch in a way that sent an unequivocal message that he was requesting to be penetrated anally. Jones used some lotion as a lubricant and anally penetrated Kester.
Subsequently, Kester, who was crying while Jones was out of the cell, was questioned by a guard and made his allegation of having been sexually assaulted. A medical examination found semen in his anus that DNA testing linked to Jones.
At trial, Jones defended on grounds of consent. His attorney sought to question potential jurors about their attitudes toward homosexuality, but the judge precluded such questioning, asserting that the issue in the case was about sexual assault, not homosexuality. Jones was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in addition to the sentences he was serving on prior convictions.
On appeal, Jones objected to the limitation on voir dire, the technical term for the process by which lawyers question prospective jurors to determine their suitability to serve. Jones also raised other objections about the conduct of the trial judge. The court reversed based on the voir dire restriction.
In a prior case, People v. Strain, decided in 2000, the Illinois Supreme Court had set aside a jury verdict on the ground that the defendant’s lawyer had been denied the right to question prospective jurors about their attitude toward gangs, in a case where the defendant was being charged with gang-related violence. The Supreme Court said on that occasion, “The purpose of voir dire is to ascertain sufficient information about prospective jurors’ beliefs and opinions so as to allow removal of those members of the venire whose minds are so closed by bias and prejudice that they cannot apply the law as instructed in accordance with their oath.”
“Defendant seeks for this court to extend the holding of Strain to questioning of homosexual bias because the topic of homosexual relationships incites the same type of charged and passionate response among the general public as gang activity and gang violence,” McBride wrote.
“The issue of homosexuality is a controversial topic in this country,” McBride continued, referring to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll cited by Jones. “While the question of sexual orientation may not draw as clear a bias as gangs, bias and prejudice do exist against homosexuality, and it is not necessarily true that such bias is predicated on religious beliefs.”
The court’s opinion found that there might be limits to which the voir dire process would have to assess anti-gay bias, but asserted that the need was clear in this case.
“The mere fact that a defendant or victim is homosexual may not be sufficient to require questioning of potential jurors as to possible bias,” McBride wrote. “However, in cases where issues involving homosexuality are ‘inextricably bound up with the conduct of the trial,’ the trial court should allow questions to potential jurors to discover any bias or prejudice in order to assure the defendant a fair and unbiased jury. Here, we disagree with the trial court’s dismissal of homosexuality as a ‘non-issue.’ This case involved homosexual sexual assault, and under these facts where a defense of consent is presented, homosexual acts are inextricably tied up with the offense of sexual assault.”
McBride noted consistent holdings by appellate courts in Missouri, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
“Here, the trial court abused its discretion when it deprived defendant of the opportunity to sufficiently question the venire as a whole and individuals jurors as to any bias or prejudice against homosexuality, and we remand for a new trial,” the opinion concluded.