The Superior Court recently had opportunity to review the appropriate standard to be applied when a Defendant desires to strike a prospective juror for cause when that prospective juror is a police officer. Com. v. Kelly, No. 367 WDA 2015 (February 08, 2016).


Kelly and Fuller were heroin dealers. They thought that another heroin dealer (Murray) had stolen heroin from them. So, they went to his apartment building, with a gun, intending to assault and rob him. While there, Kelly shot Murray’s girlfriend (Finney) as she was exiting the apartment. She was seven months pregnant with her daughter. Both Finney and her baby died as a result of the shooting.

Kelly and Fuller were arrested and charged with, among other offenses, the murder of Finney and her unborn child.

The matter was scheduled for trial on August 11, 2014. During voir dire (jury section), Kelly’s counsel requested that certain jurors be excused “for cause” based on their responses to questions bearing upon their ability to be fair and impartial in their deliberations. Prospective jurors may be stricken for any non-discriminatory reason by the use of a peremptory strike. They may also be stricken “for cause.”

Among the jurors Kelly’s counsel asked to be excused for cause was Juror No. 1, a police officer, who had worked on prior cases with the two Commonwealth attorneys prosecuting the case and knew several of the police officers listed as potential witnesses. The trial court refused to excuse Juror No. 1 (and two other jurors challenged for cause) as requested by Kelly’s counsel. As a result, Kelly was required to exercise three of his peremptory challenges on these jurors. Kelly ended up exhausting all of his peremptory challenges prior to the empaneling of the jury.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Kelly guilty of the above-mentioned crimes. The trial court sentenced Kelly to life in prison on each of his murder convictions and to eight to twenty years in prison on the conspiracy to commit robbery conviction, with all sentences to run consecutively.
Kelly filed a timely post-sentence Motion, which the trial court denied. Kelly thereafter appealed to the Superior Court. This Opinion followed.


Did the trial court commit error when it refused to excuse a police officer for cause?


The trial court’s failure to sustain Kelly’s challenge for cause of the police officer in the jury pool constituted reversible error. Kelly’s judgment of sentence was therefore vacated and his case remanded for a new trial.


Kelly argued that the trial court erred by refusing to excuse for cause Juror No. 1 and two other jurors, all of whom indicated an inability to be fair and impartial. Kelly asserted that, as a result of the trial court’s refusal to excuse these jurors, he was required to exercise his peremptory challenges to exclude them from the jury, and was thereby deprived of those peremptory challenges. Kelly argued that he was therefore forced to accept other individuals as jurors and was deprived of his fundamental right to a fair and impartial jury.

The Superior Court explained that when a defendant has exhausted his peremptory challenges due to being forced to use one or more of them because of an incorrect ruling court ruling, reversible error occurs. Therefore, in this case – because Kelly exhausted his peremptory challenges prior to the empaneling of the jury – the Superior Court was required to determine whether the trial court’s refusal to excuse Juror No. 1 for cause constituted reversible error.

The Superior Court reviewed the basic law concerning the selection of jurors in the voir dire process. It noted that the sole purpose of examination of jurors under voir dire is to secure a competent, fair, impartial and unprejudiced jury. It is therefore appropriate to use such an examination to disclose fixed opinions or to expose other reasons for disqualification.

There are two types of situations in which challenges for cause should be granted: (1) when the potential juror has such a close relationship, be it familial, financial or situational, with parties, counsel, victims, or witnesses, that the court will presume the likelihood of prejudice; and (2) when the potential juror’s likelihood of prejudice is exhibited by his conduct and answers to questions at voir dire. In the former situation, the determination is practically one of law and subject to ordinary review. In the latter situation, much depends upon the answers and demeanor of the potential juror as observed by the trial judge and therefore reversal is appropriate only in case of palpable error.

Juror No. 1 stated that he was a police officer and that he knew several of the police officers listed as potential witnesses in the case. He stated that when, in his capacity as a police officer, he files criminal complaints, they are prosecuted by the Beaver County DA’s Office (the same district attorney’s office that was prosecuting Kelly’s case). Juror No. 1 also stated that he worked on previous cases with the two Beaver County District Attorneys representing the Commonwealth in this case, and that they have handled cases that he has filed.

Kelly’s counsel challenged Juror No. 1 for cause, based on (1) his employment as an active police officer engaged in an ongoing relationship with the Beaver County DA’s Office prosecuting the case; and (2) his indication that he knows several of the police officers listed as potential witnesses.

With respect to the challenge of prospective jurors who are police officers, the Superior Court stated that a prospective juror’s status as a law enforcement officer in and of itself is insufficient to require disqualification as a juror in a criminal case. However, if a police officer has a “real relationship” to the case, he must automatically be excluded from serving on a criminal jury. The Superior Court cited a prior decision where a “real relationship” had been found to exist between a proposed juror and the case where that juror was a member of the same police force that has officers testifying in the case, and the focus of the defense was on the alleged involuntary nature of the confession and credibility of testifying officers was therefore a critical factor.

In Kelly’s case, Juror No. 1 indicated that he has an ongoing relationship with the Beaver County DA’s office, which prosecuted this case; when he files criminal complaints, as he has in the recent past and expects to do so in the near future, the cases are prosecuted by the Beaver County DA’s office; he has worked on prior cases with both of the Beaver County Assistant DAs representing the Commonwealth in this case; he worked closely with the Beaver County DA’s Office in the recent past, and expects to do so in the future; and, he knew several of the police officers listed as potential law enforcement witnesses in the case. The trial court nonetheless found these reasons insufficient to excuse Juror No. 1 for cause.

The Superior Court disagreed and concluded that Juror No. 1 did have a “real relationship” to the case. It cited the on going relationship between Juror No. 1 and the Beaver County DA’s Office, as well as his relationship with the two Assistant DAs prosecuting this case, as being sufficiently close so as to raise the presumption of prejudice. Additionally, because the Commonwealth’s case rested in part on the testimony of ten police officers, several of whom were known to Juror No. 1, that, taken together with the ongoing relationship between Juror No. 1 and the Beaver County District Attorneys prosecuting this case, caused the Superior Court to conclude that the likelihood of prejudice on the part of Juror No. 1 should have been be presumed.


DISCLAIMER – The information contained in this article is for general guidance on the subject matter only. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on the specific facts involved. Given the changing nature of laws, rules and regulations, and the inherent hazards of electronic communication, there may be delays, omissions or inaccuracies in information in this article. Accordingly, the information in this article is provided with the understanding that the authors and publishers are not herein engaged in rendering legal or other professional advice and services. As such, it should NOT be used as a substitute for consultation with a McMahon & Winters Law Firm attorney. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should always consult with a McMahon & Winters Law Firm attorney.