Sunday, June 19, 2005

Batson’s Back, Baby!

Walker v. Girdrich, Docket No. 03-2645 (June 8, 2005) (Jacobs, Calabresi (C.J.J.) and Rakoff (D.J.)), (Op.by Jacobs).

Presaging the United States Supreme Court’s Miller-El decision by just five days, the Court of Appeals here rejected a state prosecutor’s reason for striking single black prospective juror, and granted the petitioner’s writ.

Facts

Tried in the New York Supreme Court, Kings County, on drug charges, Robert Walker lodged a
Batson objection after the prosecutor used twelve of thirteen peremptory challenges to remove African-Americans from the venire, alleging that the strikes were the product of purposeful discrimination. The trial judge concluded that there was no ‘pattern’ of discrimination, but invited the prosecutor to give her reason for striking the juror in question, Bernard Jones, who had not yet been discharged. The prosecutor indicated, inter alia, that Mr. Jones “gave one word answers” and was concerned about missing work, but noted that her “main ...problem[s]” with him were related to his race: “[T]his is an individual who was a Black man with no kids and no family.” She went out to point out that he had “ no experience whatsoever with police officers,” and that she perceived him as having “an attitude ... against a prosecutor.”

The trial judge accepted these comments as race-neutral, held that there was no “pattern” of purposeful discrimination, and denied the Batson objection. Interestingly, Mr. Jones, who apparently had been struck at a time when he would have been seated on the jury itself, ended up as an alternate, on consent, although he did not deliberate.

On appeal, Mr. Walker’s Batson claim got the typical perfunctory treatment from the New York State courts: a brief mention that it was “without merit” by the Appellate Division, and a denial of leave,without comment, by the New York Court of Appeals. On habeas review, Judge Weinstein denied the writ but granted a certificate of appealability.

The Court’s Holding

The Court of Appeals reversed and granted a conditional writ. After the usual preliminaries, including a concise recitation of the current law surrounding Batson claims, the Court had no trouble concluding that the A.D.A.’s striking of Mr. Jones “was not race neutral.” After all, she openly stated that one of her “main” concerns was Mr. Jones’ race, apparently aggravated by the fact that he had no family. The Court also astutely pointed out that some of her other reasons, such as Mr. Jones’ “one word answers” and his “attitude,” tended to “reinforce” rather than “dispel a race-based motive.” Lastly, the Court noted that the juror’s lack of experience with police would have favored keeping him on the panel, not removing him. Finding that the district court’s denial of the writ involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, the Court reversed the denial of the writ.

The Real Significance

The Walker decision is significant for reasons other than its fairly obvious holding. The record in this case was notable for its lack of clarity. No record had been made of the composition of the jury pool up to the point of the Batson objection, which occurred during the fourth round of jury selection. Consequently, the Court was unable to determine whether the defendant might have been able to satisfy his preliminary burden of making out a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination. It got around this problem by noting that the striking of even a single veniremember for racial reasons violates Batson, and that the objection to the striking of Mr. Jones was sufficient.

But this case serves as a reminder of the importance of making an adequate record when registering aBatson objection, since it will be the rare case indeed where, as here, the prosecutor is stupid enough to give an overtly racial reason. Thus, the Court warns: “It is helpful in a Batson case to have a record as to the composition of the venire and the race and ethnicity of the jurors struck on either side. Moreover, the allocation of the burden for creating a record as to the prima facie case is unsettled; so it would be prudent for counsel to preserve a full opportunity for appeal by making a record for appeal.”

This case is significant for a second reason. Mr. Jones, the juror at issue, ended up on the jury, albeit as an alternate, but the Court still found a Batson violation.

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