On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County.
Michels, Pressler and Trautwein. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Michels, P.J.A.D.
Following a jury trial, defendant Tyrone Rodney Williams was convicted of receiving stolen property in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7 and N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2 a. Defendant's motion for a new trial on the ground that his right to a fair trial had been infringed by the failure of one of the jurors to reveal that she had been convicted of a crime when she answered the standard juror disqualification form was denied. Defendant was then committed to the Youth Correctional Institution Complex for an indeterminate term not to exceed a maximum of five years and ordered to make restitution in the sum of $779.25. He appeals.
Defendant contends that the trial judge erred in denying his motion for a new trial. He argues that since one of the jurors was disqualified from serving by reason of having been convicted of a crime, he was denied his fundamental right to be tried by a fair and impartial jury of 12 persons. One of the jurors had in fact been convicted of welfare fraud, given a suspended county jail sentence and placed on probation for five years.
Nonetheless, that juror negatively answered the inquiry in the juror prequalification form "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" During voir dire examination the trial judge inquired further of that juror, "[H]ave you or anybody in your family ever been convicted -- ever been a victim of a crime?" She answered that her mother had been the victim of an assault. Although the question was somewhat ambiguous, neither the trial judge nor counsel inquired further whether the juror had been convicted of a crime and the juror did not reveal that she had been convicted of welfare fraud or that she had received a suspended sentence or that she was then on probation.
Shortly after the jury returned its verdict of guilty, the trial judge and counsel were informed of that particular juror's prior criminal record. Defendant immediately moved for a new trial. The trial judge denied the motion, concluding in part that N.J.S.A. 2A:78-6, which "bars any exception based on disqualification after the juror is sworn, really envisions the very situation we have here, that is, that a disqualified juror would, in fact, become sworn and vote on a verdict. The final paragraph of [ N.J.S.A. ] 2A:78-6, therefore, would preserve the integrity of the verdict in such rare event." We disagree and reverse.
It is fundamental that a defendant has a right to a trial by a fair and impartial jury. The qualifications for service as a grand juror or petit juror are statutory and are set forth with clarity in N.J.S.A. 2A:69-1, which provides:
Every person, male and female, summoned as a grand juror, and every petit juror returned for the trial of any action of a civil or criminal nature in any of the courts of this State, shall be a citizen of this State for at least 2 years; over 21 and under 75 years of age; a resident of the county from which he shall be taken; shall not have been convicted of a crime; and shall not, at the time of his selection, be a person who through his office, position or employment is either directly or indirectly connected with the administration of justice. Such person shall be able to read, write and understand the English language and shall not have any mental or physical disability which will prevent him from properly serving as a juror.
It is equally settled that the lack of any one of these qualifications constitutes good cause to challenge a prospective juror. N.J.S.A. 2A:78-6 provides:
It shall be good cause of challenge to any person summoned as a grand juror or as a petit juror on the trial of any action of a civil or criminal nature in any of the courts of this state, that he does not possess the qualifications required by section 2A:69-1 of this title, or that he has served as a petit juror within the preceding year. Such person shall be discharged upon such challenge being verified according to law or on his own oath in support thereof.
No exception to any juror, grand or petit, on account of his citizenship, age or other legal disability shall be allowed ...