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Trail Court Must Evaluate Prosecution’s Reasons for Exclusion of Black Jurors

People v. Collins (Cal. Ct. App., Feb. 2, 2021, No. F076883) 2021 WL 343935

 Summary: Collins was convicted of two counts of murder as a result of driving while impaired

On appeal, he claims that  the trial court erred in denying his motion to challenge the prosecutor’s excusal of a black prospective juror during jury selection.

The trial court applied the incorrect standard to review the motion challenging the prosecutor’s excusal of a black juror. The Court of Appeal’s  independent review of the record supports a reasonable inference the prosecutor’s excusal was improperly motivated. The judgment is conditionally reversed to resume and conclude the hearing on the motion.

The Court Erred In Denying The Batson/Wheeler Motion

During jury selection, the 12 prospective jurors were seated on the jury box Six potential alternate jurors were seated outside the box. These 18 jurors were subjected to questioning to determine their fitness to serve as jurors.

After questioning concluded and each party exercised three peremptory strikes, the prosecutor accepted the 12 jurors in the box. At that point, one black juror was seated in the 12-person jury box. The parties each exercised an additional peremptory and a second black juror, Margo S.,moved from an alternate seat into the 12-person jury box. Collins then used a fifth peremptory strike on a different juror and the prosecutor used a fifth peremptory to strike Margo S. Collins challenged the prosecutor’s fifth strike pursuant to Batson/Wheeler.

Outside the jury’s presence, Collins’s attorney explained Margo S. was “obviously an African American woman … which is … Mr. Collins’ racial group.” The challenge was premised on the fact counsel “didn’t hear anything in her comments that would indicate a race-neutral reason for excusing her ….”

The court responded it must determine if “the excusal led to a reasonable inference of a discriminatory nature and, by virtue of deduction, there was no other reason under which the prospective juror should have been excused or released.” The court  denied the motion, finding Collins “failed to demonstrate a prima facie case that would lead one to reasonably believe that the only reason Ms. [S.] was released from this panel is for a discriminatory purpose ….”

The court added, “[B]ased on the direct observations that the Court had in having the opportunity to question Ms. [S.], it did appear to the Court that not only based on her profession does she have some understanding of potential evidence that might be presented in this case, even though she can set it aside, but just as importantly, if not more importantly, she herself was prosecuted for petty theft, as she put it, when she was younger, and she also has cousins that have been incarcerated, two in particular, that she shared with us, one being a result of assaulting his or her mother and another for assaultive allegations.” “Those … circumstances … certainly would lend itself to excusing Ms. [S.] for reasons other than” discrimination.

The prosecutor agreed with the court and added, “[S]he indicated that one of her relatives … was convicted of charges as a result of an assault that resulted from what she termed a mental breakdown, which is psychologically similar, but not the same situation as the defense is arguing in this case.” He also noted that “prospective juror number one [was] also African-American and the People accepted the panel with her on it.”

Collins assered that the court for applied  the wrong standard to the motion, and for offering  its own nondiscriminatory reasons for the prosecutor’s challenge. The People argued the trial court applied the right standard or, alternatively, Collins nonetheless failed to raise a prima facie case of discrimination.

Exclusion of jurors based on race is unconstitutional- Batson/Wheeler Motion

[Batson v. Kentucky (1986) 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69; People v. Wheeler (1978) 22 Cal.3d 258, 148 Cal.Rptr. 890, 583 P.2d 748.

The case law that has developed around the risk of using peremptory challenges to exclude jurors of a specific race  has established a three-step framework for addressing challenges to the exercise of peremptories based on claims of discriminatory intent. These challenges are known as Batson/Wheeler challenges.

The ‘Constitution forbids striking even a single prospective juror for a discriminatory purpose.’ ” (Foster v. Chatman (2016) ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1737, 1747, 195 L.Ed.2d 1.) Ruling on a Batson/Wheeler motion is a three stage process. In a typical criminal  case, “ ‘ “[f]irst, a defendant must make a prima facie showing that a peremptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race[; s]econd, if that showing has been made, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question[; and t]hird, in light of the parties’ submissions, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination.” ’ ” (Snyder v. Louisiana (2008) 552 U.S. 472, 476-477, 128 S.Ct. 1203, 170 L.Ed.2d 175 (Snyder).)

“A defendant establishes a prima facie case of discrimination ‘by producing evidence sufficient to permit the trial judge to draw an inference that discrimination has occurred.’  An inference is a logical conclusion based on a set of facts. When the trial court concludes that a defendant has failed to make a prima facie case, we review the voir dire of the challenged jurors to determine whether the totality of the relevant facts supports an inference of discrimination.” (People v. Lancaster (2007) 41 Cal.4th 50, 74, 58 Cal.Rptr.3d 608, 158 P.3d 157 (Lancaster).) An “ ‘only logical conclusion’ standard … overstate[s] the requirement….” (Id. at p. 75, 58 Cal.Rptr.3d 608, 158 P.3d 157.)

The Court of Appeal acknowledged the prosecutor’s acceptance of another black juror in this case “lessen[s] the strength of any inference of discrimination that the pattern of the prosecutor’s strikes might otherwise imply.” (People v. Reed (2018) 4 Cal.5th 989, 1000, 232 Cal.Rptr.3d 81, 416 P.3d 68.) But accepting one juror of a particular group does not necessarily mean another juror of the same group was not dismissed due to membership in the same group. There could be reasons why one juror appears favorable to the party, while the other juror is nonetheless stricken precisely because of his or her group.

Remedy

The trial court to proceed with the second and third stages upon remand.“The trial court has a pivotal role in evaluating Batson claims. Step three of the Batson inquiry involves an evaluation of the prosecutor’s credibility, [citation], and ‘the best evidence [of discriminatory intent] often will be the demeanor of the attorney who exercises the challenge,’ [citation]. In addition, race-neutral reasons for peremptory challenges often invoke a juror’s demeanor (e.g., nervousness, inattention), making the trial court’s firsthand observations of even greater importance. In this situation, the trial court must evaluate not only whether the prosecutor’s demeanor belies a discriminatory intent, but also whether the juror’s demeanor can credibly be said to have exhibited the basis for the strike attributed to the juror by the prosecutor. We have recognized that these determinations of credibility and demeanor lie ‘ “peculiarly within a trial judge’s province,” ’  and we have stated that ‘in the absence of exceptional circumstances, we would defer to [the trial court],’ “ (Snyder, supra, 552 U.S. at p. 477, 128 S.Ct. 1203.)

The  trial court “should attempt to conduct the second and third Batson steps. It should require the prosecutor to explain his challenges. If the prosecutor offers a race-neutral explanation, the court must try to evaluate that explanation and decide whether defendant has proved purposeful racial discrimination. If the court finds that, due to the passage of time or any other reason, it cannot adequately address the issues at this stage or make a reliable determination, or if it determines that the prosecutor exercised his peremptory challenges improperly, it should set the case for a new trial. If it finds the prosecutor exercised his peremptory challenges in a permissible fashion, it should reinstate the judgment.” (Johnson, supra, 38 Cal.4th at pp. 1103-1104, 45 Cal.Rptr.3d 1, 136 P.3d 804.)

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