This week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in Commonwealth v. Toolan, overturned the murder conviction of Thomas E. Toolan III. The defendant, a 44-year-old former Manhattan bank executive, had been convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend on Nantucket in 2007. The Supreme Judicial Court, which based its reversal in part on U.S. v. Skilling, found that the trial judge
did not conduct his examination [voir dire] in a way that would have allowed him to make a sound determination as to whether each juror was impartial despite the exposure. Instead, he shifted the burden of assessing impartiality from himself to individual members of the venire. [FN26] Jurors' answers to individual voir dire questions on the defense of lack of criminal responsibility provided some additional insight into their willingness to return not guilty verdicts, but did not directly address the impact of publicity and local community attitudes and their opinion on them.
Because the voir dire was insufficient to support a contrary conclusion, it is appropriate to assume in the context of this case that jurors who did not state otherwise were exposed to negative pretrial publicity.
This is the second recent high-profile case in which a state court has called into question the voir dire practices of the trial judge. In June, the NY Court of Appeals, in People v. Owen Steward, overturned a defendant's robbery conviction because the trial judge failed to identify prospective jurors by name, initials or panel number and only allowed defense counsel 5 minutes to conduct voir dire on each venire panel which generally consisted of 16 prospective jurors.