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Virus restrictions didn’t produce unfair trial, court rules

August 16, 2021 GMT

The state Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Bergen County man wasn’t denied a fair trial because of jury selection changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, though the justices took the additional step of ordering courts to begin collecting demographic data from prospective jurors.

Wildemar Dangcil’s trial last fall was the first jury trial in the state to use the hybrid jury selection process, a mostly virtual undertaking aimed at limiting in-person contact as the number of coronavirus cases surged.

Dangcil was convicted of attempted assault, attempted arson, making terroristic threats and other charges, and appealed on the grounds that the jury selection process failed to ensure a jury representing a cross section of the community.

A similar challenge in a separate case, alleging a lack of access to technology would unconstitutionally exclude minority, poor and elderly jurors, was rejected by the Supreme Court in April.

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Dangcil’s attorneys also argued the jury selection process denied him the right to be present during the excusal and disqualification of jurors.

In Monday’s unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court rejected both arguments but wrote that the appeal raised important issues.

“To better assist our courts in preventing potential underrepresentation and irregularities stemming from the hybrid process and other facially neutral selection procedures, we direct the (Administrative Office of the Courts) to begin collecting jurors’ demographic information,” including race, ethnicity and gender, Justice Lee Solomon wrote. The disclosures would be voluntary.

Attorney Brian Neary, who argued on behalf of Dangcil, said the requirement is another step toward addressing potential bias in the jury selection process.

“Now we’ll be able to get a sense of whether we are eliminating, via pre-qualifying questions, certain groups — maybe not intentionally, but implicitly,” he said.

In a statement from the New Jersey State Bar Association, which also argued in support of Dangcil, attorney Lawrence Lustberg said the ruling “reflects the Association’s earlier recommendations to begin collecting demographic information about even those potential jurors who are excused prior to coming to court, which will guard against the risk of unconstitutional jury selection and under-representative juries.”