Prosecutor’s reasons for peremptory strike of Black juror were improper and required explanation

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. DAVID G. ARIAS, Defendant and Appellant. (Cal. Ct. App., May 10, 2024, No. A164789) 2024 WL 2103781, at *1

Summary: Arias was tried for two counts of sexual abuse committed against J. Doe, a child under 14 years old. During the trial, the defense brought a Batson/Wheeler1 motion challenging the prosecutor’s exercise of a peremptory strike against a prospective juror who was a Black woman. The trial court ruled that a prima facie case of discrimination was established, and the  prosecutor gave three reasons for the strike. The court then denied the motion without any discussion, stating only that it did not “think the challenge was based on racial animus or bias.” The jury convicted Arias and he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court’s denial of the Batson/Wheeler motion was improper, because the prosecutor’s reasons for the strike do not withstand scrutiny. The first reason was that the juror would “empathize” more with defense experts than with a prosecution expert because her educational background was similar to that of the defense experts. But the prosecution expert’s educational background was essentially the same as the defense experts’. The second reason was that the juror had concerns about implicit bias and unfairness in the criminal justice system. A recent statute expressly renders such a reason presumptively invalid, the statute does not apply to this case because the jury was selected before its effective date. (Code Civ. Proc., § 231.7, subds. (e), (i).) But this reason, although facially race-neutral under then-governing law, did not independently justify the strike under the totality of the circumstances. The last reason was that the juror was “pretty opinionated” and might therefore be reluctant to deliberate. This concern was unlikely to have actually motivated the strike, however, because it was not applied to other potential jurors. Applying the Batson/Wheeler framework, the record lacks sufficient evidence on which the trial court could have reasonably relied to accept the prosecutor’s reasons for striking the juror without further explanation. The  error was structural, and the Court of Appeal reversed.

The Batson/Wheeler Framework

“ ‘ “Both the federal and state Constitutions prohibit any advocate’s use of peremptory challenges to exclude prospective jurors based on race.” ’ [Citation.] ‘ “Doing so violates both the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution and the right to trial by a jury drawn from a representative cross-section of the community under article I, section 16 of the California Constitution.” ’ ” (People v. Holmes, McClain and Newborn (2022) 12 Cal.5th 719, 759–760 (Holmes).) The “ ‘[e]xclusion of even one prospective juror for reasons impermissible under Batson and Wheeler constitutes structural error’ ” and requires reversal. (People v. Krebs (2019) 8 Cal.5th 265, 292; People v. Silva (2001) 25 Cal.4th 345, 386 (Silva).)

Three step process of Batson/Wheeler claim

“ ‘ “First, the defendant must make a prima facie showing that the prosecution exercised a challenge based on impermissible criteria. Second, if the trial court finds a prima facie case, then the prosecution must offer nondiscriminatory reasons for the challenge. Third, the trial court must determine whether the prosecution’s offered justification is credible and whether, in light of all relevant circumstances, the defendant has shown purposeful race discrimination. ‘The ultimate burden of persuasion regarding [discriminatory] motivation rests with, and never shifts from, the [defendant].’ ” ’ ” (Holmes, supra, 12 Cal.5th at p. 760.)

Generally, we review a trial court’s denial of a Batson/Wheeler motion “ ‘ “ ‘with great restraint,’ ” ’ ” considering “only whether substantial evidence supports its conclusions.” (People v. Lenix (2008) 44 Cal.4th 602, 613 (Lenix).) “

The Record Does Not Support the Trial Court’s Unexplained Third-stage Ruling that the Peremptory Challenge Was Not Discriminatory

Having concluded that the prosecutor’s reasons for excusing the juror. were facially race-neutral, step three requires the courts look to all relevant circumstances bearing on the issue of discrimination. “The ultimate inquiry is whether the State was ‘motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.’ ” (Flowers v. Mississippi (2019) 588 U.S. __, 139 S.Ct. 2228, 2244.)

The primary focus of the analysis is “the persuasiveness of the prosecutor’s justification for [the] peremptory strike.

Here, the prosecutor gave several reasons for a strike, the apparent validity of one or more of them does not end the analysis. Such an approach by a prosecutor “carries a significant danger: that the trial court will take a shortcut in its determination of the prosecutor’s credibility, picking one plausible item from the list and summarily accepting it without considering whether the prosecutor’s explanation as a whole, including offered reasons that are implausible or unsupported by the prospective juror’s questionnaire and voir dire, indicates a pretextual justification. A prosecutor’s positing of multiple reasons, some of which, upon examination, prove implausible or unsupported by the facts, can in some circumstances fatally impair the prosecutor’s credibility. [Citation.] In assessing credibility at the third stage …, trial courts should attempt to evaluate the [prosecutor’s] statement of reasons as a whole rather than focus exclusively on one or two of the reasons offered.” (People v. Smith (2018) 4 Cal.5th 1134, 1157–1158.)

The denial of the Batson/Wheeler motion was erroneous.

The prosecutor’s reasons for striking the juror. were all problematic but the court accepted these reasons without any explanation or further probing.

The ultimate question at the third stage of a Batson/Wheeler analysis is whether the defendant proved purposeful racial discrimination by a preponderance of the evidence. The court’s ruling that Arias did not meet his “burden of proving intentional discrimination with respect to the prosecutor’s exclusion of [A.W.] … was unreasonable in light of the record of voir dire proceedings.” (Gutierrez, supra, 2 Cal.5th at p. 1172.) Reversal is required.

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