California Supreme Court overturns death sentence because trial court improperly excused four jurors

In a death penalty case, the California Supreme Court concluded that the trial court improperly excused at least four prospective jurors for cause and reversed the defendant’s death sentence while affirming his conviction. In a capital case, the erroneous excusal of even one prospective juror for cause requires automatic reversal of the death sentence, although not the guilt determinations. Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968) 391 U.S. 510. A jury in Los Angeles convicted defendant for kidnapping, robbing, raping, torturing, and murdering a 45-year-old woman and returned a death verdict.  The prosecutor also struck four black male jurors, leaving no black man on the jury.

Defendant Jamelle Edward Armstrong, a black man, was sentenced to death for raping, torturing, and murdering Penny Sigler, a white woman. Armstrong objected to the prosecutor’s peremptory strikes of four black men in the jury panel. (See Batson v. Kentucky (1986) 476 U.S.; People v. Wheeler (1978) 22 Cal.3d 258. The prosecutor gave reasons for each strike, and the trial court rejected Armstrong’s Batson claims.

Trial Court applied erroneous standard to juror qualification for death penalty

The court concluded that the trial court improperly excused at least four prospective jurors for cause. Because under the standards of Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968) 391 U.S. 510, and Wainwright v. Witt (1985) 469 U.S. 412, multiple prospective jurors were improperly excused for cause, reversal of the death sentence was required.  The trial court applied an erroneous standard to the question of qualification, and it relied on factual bases not supported by the record. Based on established United States Supreme Court case law, the court did not find the error harmless. Even if a harmless error standard were to apply, the prosecution failed to explain how the erroneous exclusion of at least four jurors could be deemed harmless.

Prosecution properly exercised its peremptory challenges to exclude African-American men from Jury

Peremptory challenges are “designed to be used ‘for any reason, or no reason at all.” People v. Scott (2015) 61 Cal.4th 363, 387

The defendant, Armstrong, sought a mistrial on the ground that all African-American men had been removed from the jury panel. The trial court denied the motion. On appeal, Armstrong claimed the prosecutor’s peremptory challenges were exercised to discriminate against African-American men specifically, rather than all African Americans. The Court of Appeal affirmed that African American men should be considered a cognizable group.

There ‘is a rebuttable presumption that a peremptory challenge is being exercised properly, and the burden is on the opposing party to demonstrate impermissible discrimination.’ ” (People v. Hensley (2014) 59 Cal.4th 788, 802. Under a three-step process, a defendant must:

  1. Make a prima facie case by showing that the totality of the relevant facts gives rise to an inference of discriminatory purpose.
  2. Once the defendant has made out a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the State to explain adequately the racial exclusion by offering permissible race-neutral justifications for the strikes.
  3. If a race-neutral explanation is tendered, the trial court must then decide whether the opponent of the strike has proved purposeful racial discrimination.

The defendant’s ultimate burden is to demonstrate that “it was more likely than not that the challenge was improperly motivated.”

In this case, the prosecution’s exercise of peremptory challenges was proper.  The Constitution makes clear that group bias is unacceptable and prospective jurors must be evaluated as individuals, in light of all the information gleaned during voir dire. What matters is the full range of responses and whether, because of widespread similarities aside from race or gender, a reasonable comparison casts doubt on the honesty of the neutral reasons offered. Armstrong failed to identify jurors with such similarities as to cast doubt on the trial court’s acceptance of the prosecutor’s reasons as genuine

Test for qualification for jury service in a death penalty case

The appropriate test for qualification with respect to jury service in a death penalty case turns on a willingness and ability to follow the law.

Armstrong contended the court erred by excusing multiple jury candidates on the ground they could not fairly and impartially consider whether death was the appropriate punishment. The Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of an impartial jury confers on capital defendants the right to a jury not ‘uncommonly willing to condemn a man to die.’” White v. Wheeler (2015) 577 U.S. ___ 193 L. Ed. 2d 384

A prospective juror may be challenged for cause based upon his or her views regarding capital punishment only if those views would ‘“prevent or substantially impair”’ the performance of the juror’s duties as defined by the court’s instructions and the juror’s oath. A prospective juror is properly excluded if he or she is unable to conscientiously consider all of the sentencing alternatives, including the death penalty where appropriate.

Jurors are not required to like the law but are required to follow it.

Prospective jurors who firmly believe that the death penalty is unjust may serve as jurors in capital cases so long as they state clearly that they are willing to temporarily set aside their own beliefs in deference to the rule of law. Jurors are not required to like the law, but they are required to follow it. A jury candidate who will not, or cannot, follow a statutory framework, is not qualified to serve. Yet so long as prospective jurors can obey the court’s instructions and determine whether death is appropriate based on a sincere consideration of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, they are not ineligible to serve.

Here, the court improperly excused at least four candidates. [*13]  In doing so, it committed two kinds of errors: (1) it applied an erroneous standard to the question of qualification; and (2) it relied on factual bases not supported by the record. As a result, the death verdict must be reversed. (People v. Heard (2003) 31 Cal.4th 946, 966 [4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 131, 75 P.3d 53].)

People v Armstrong; S126560; 2/4/19; Supreme Court of California