Court Finds Prosecution’s Conduct in Jury Selection Racially Motivated

2d dept

In People v Bell, 2015 NY Slip Op 01812, the Second Department Appellate Court reversed a conviction and sent the case back for retrial because the Court found that the prosecutor used racially motivated reasons to strike two black potential jurors during jury selection.

The United States Supreme Court in Batson v Kentucky, 476 US 79 (1986) ruled that the government may not dismiss perspective jurors for racially motivated reasons. The Courts in following Batson, have extended this protection to gender and other protected classes of people that cannot be discriminated against in jury selection, and have even extended the rule to include a prohibition against defendants from striking jurors on discriminatory reasons.

(There are two types of challenges in jury selection, cause challenges and preemptory challenges. Cause challenges require the party making the challenge to state a valid reason to the trial court explaining why a juror, based on his or her answers to questions, would be unfair to one side or the other, and would not be able to sit as a fair and impartial juror. A preemptory challenge is a challenge that the party making the challenge does not have to give a reason, but each side has a limited number of preemptory challenges depending on the severity of the most serious crime charged. The rules in Batson only apply to preemptory challenges, as the party making these challenges may be racially motivated but is obviously not stating so on the record.)

In Batson, the United States Supreme Court created a three-step test to determine if preemptory challenges were used to exclude potential jurors based on discriminatory reasons.

1) The moving party must make a showing (prima facie) of purposeful discrimination by showing that the facts and circumstances of the jury selection process that raise an inference that the other party excused one or more jurors for an impermissible discriminatory reason;

2) If the moving party makes a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the adversary to provide a facially neutral explanation for the challenge. If the nonmoving party offers facially neutral reasons supporting the challenge, the inference of discrimination is overcome. If the inference is not overcome, the Court must reseat the juror and part three is unnecessary.

3) If a facially neutral reason is provided. the burden shifts back to the moving party to prove purposeful discrimination, and the trial court must determine whether the proffered reasons are pretextual, including whether the reasons apply to the facts of the case, and whether the reasons were applied to only a particular class of jurors and not to others.

In this case, there was no dispute that the first and second steps of the Batson inquiry were satisfied in connection with the subject prospective jurors.

With the first African American prospective juror at issue, the prosecutor employed a peremptory challenge to strike him as a juror “because of a concern that his position as a church deacon would make it difficult for him to sit in judgment of another individual.” This black juror had indicated during voir dire (the jury selection process) that his position as a church deacon would not affect his decision making; however, the prosecutor maintained that it was “just [his] feeling that it may be difficult having [someone in] that position to then sit in judgment of someone.”

The Appellate Court found this reasoning a pretext to discrimination. The Court did not believe that the prosecutor was being honest in his belief about the perspective juror’s occupation would make it difficult to sit in judgment, the court found this an excuse to cover up a racist intent to strike a black juror. The Court stated, “The prosecutor did not offer any explanation for how employment as a church deacon related to the factual circumstances of the case or qualifications to serve as a juror. Furthermore, the prosecutor’s challenge was admittedly based on his ‘feeling’ that a church deacon would have difficulty sitting in judgment of another, and the prosecutor failed to pursue questioning of the prospective juror to ascertain whether this intuitive feeling was founded in fact.”

As for the second prospective black juror the prosecutor peremptorily challenged, the prosecutor said it was because that prospective juror was “shaking his head in agreement” with a white juror, who was explaining the trouble she would have in reaching a verdict and “deciding the outcome of someone else’s life.” However, the second prospective black juror, indicated that he could convict if the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt when asked directly.

Moreover, the white juror had been challenged by the prosecution for cause, but that challenge was denied, and the prosecution did not use a peremptory challenge to strike her as a juror while never making a cause challenge to the second prospective black juror, but striking him with a preemptory challenge.

The Appellate Court found that although, “uneven application of race-neutral factors does not always indicate pretext, the circumstances here support a finding of pretext, as the prosecutor had a much stronger reason for exercising a peremptory challenge to strike the white juror than the second black prospective juror” but he did not strike the white juror while he did strike the black juror.

The Court stopped its inquiry here because “for the purposes of equal protection, the constitutional violation is the exclusion of any blacks solely because of their race. Accordingly, the race-based challenges to the two subject prospective jurors require reversal and a new trial.” It was unnecessary to show that all the preemptory challenges employed by the prosecutor were racially motivated so long as the Court finds that one preemptory challenge was used in a discriminatory fashion, the conviction must be overturned and a new trial ordered.

Read the original decision here.
People v Bell



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