Can Race Play a Legitimate Role in the California Jury Selection Process?

When a California criminal defendant’s case goes to trial, which of the potential jurors are ultimately selected to serve on a jury can be an important element of the trial. The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed this notion in a recent 7-2 decision in which it overturned a defendant’s conviction for murder due to an improper jury selection.

The defendant was tried six times for the 1996 murders of four employees at a Mississippi furniture store during an armed robbery. The defendant was black and three of the four victims were white. In each trial, there were issues with the selection of the jurors. During the first two trials, the prosecuting attorney used peremptory strikes to strike every one of the black prospective jurors. The juries in both trials convicted the defendant. Those verdicts were overturned based on the prosecutorial misconduct that occurred at trial.

During the third trial, the prosecution again used all of its strikes to remove black prospective jurors. The defendant was found guilty, but the conviction was overturned again because of the improper use of the prosecution’s peremptory strikes. The fourth and fifth times the defendant was tried, the cases ended in mistrials because the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict.

The defendant was then tried for a sixth time, and again convicted of the murders. At the sixth trial, the prosecution used six peremptory strikes. Five strikes were used against black prospective jurors, and only one black juror made it onto the jury. The defendant argued that the prosecution violated his right to a fair trial by impermissibly eliminating black prospective jurors, in violation of Batson v. Kentucky.

Under Batson v. Kentucky, if a defendant shows a prima facie case of discrimination, then the state must give race-neutral reasons for the peremptory strikes. The court must then decide whether the given reasons were sufficient to prove they were not a pretext for discrimination. The Mississippi Supreme Court found that the strikes were permissible because the prosecutor had offered race-neutral reasons for striking the black prospective jurors.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the defendant’s convictions once again. The Court determined that the state’s history of using discriminatory peremptory strikes, its pattern of using peremptory strikes, the amount of time it spent questioning black prospective jurors in comparison to accepted white jurors, and differences between accepted and struck jurors, showed that the state failed to show that the peremptory strike of a juror was not substantially motivated by discrimination.

The Court held that in the case of one black prospective juror, the prosecution failed to show that the strike was not substantially motivated by race. The prosecution said that it struck the black prospective juror because she knew some of the defense witnesses and worked at a store where the defendant’s father had worked. However, the Court pointed out that several white prospective jurors also knew people involved in the case or had relationships with members of the defendant’s family, but chose not to question those jurors further on those issues.

The court also noted that the prosecution spent much more time questioning black prospective jurors than the accepted white jurors. The prosecution posed 145 questions to the five black prospective jurors, and only 12 questions to the eleven accepted white jurors. For all of these reasons, the court overturned the defendant’s conviction.

Contact a California Criminal Defense Attorney

If you or a loved one has been charged with a misdemeanor or felony offense, contact an experienced California criminal defense attorney. Pleasanton criminal defense attorney John W. Noonan has over 45 years of experience in criminal law and serves individuals throughout the Tri-Valley area. Attorney John W. Noonan represents defendants in all types of criminal cases, including California violent crimes. Call Attorney Noonan 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at (925) 807-7077 or contact us online.

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