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A Better Partnership
April 21, 2016

COA: Trial courts have a heightened duty to determine the motivation on a Batson challenge where non-verbal communication is the alleged basis

In the consolidated cases of People v. Tennille, No. 323059, and People v. Rutledge, No. 323314, the defendants appealed their convictions of first-degree murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, contending that the prosecution used peremptory challenges to improperly strike African-American jurors in contravention of Batson v. Kentucky.  The Court of Appeals found that the trial court failed to make any factual determinations on whether the strikes were race-neutral and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing.
 
When a Batson objection is raised, the trial court must determine whether purposeful discrimination motivated the strike under a three-step analysis.  First, the defendant must establish a prima facie case of discriminatory use of the peremptory challenges.  Second, the prosecutor must offer a race-neutral explanation for the strikes.  Finally, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has established purposeful discrimination. 
 
In this instance, the defense counsel raised a Batson challenge when the prosecutor peremptorily excused two African-American jurors.  The prosecutor asserted that he exercised the strikes based solely on the jurors’ demeanors in response to another juror’s answers regarding police credibility, e.g., that he would give police testimony more credence than he would a normal witness.  The Court of Appeals found that the trial court did not complete the third step of the Batson process.  The trial court merely stated that the prosecutor articulated a valid, race-neutral reason for his strikes and failed to make any findings of fact regarding whether the prosecutor’s justification for the strikes seems credible under all of the relevant circumstances, including whether the jurors actually exhibited the expressions claimed and whether the averred reactions were the real reasons for the strikes.  The Court also noted that when a prosecutor’s sole explanation for a strike resides in a juror’s appearance or behavior, the third step bears heightened significance.  The Court found that the record lacked any objective indicia of the prosecutor’s credibility regarding the extent of the jurors’ reactions or the manner in which they compared to the reactions of other jurors.
 
Thus, the Court of Appeals remanded to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing during which the trial court must conduct the third-step analysis it omitted at defendant’s trial.   Furthermore, the Court held that if the trial court concludes that defendants proved purposeful discrimination or if the court is unable to reach a conclusion because of the passage of time, defendants’ convictions must be vacated and a new trial ordered.
 
Judge O’Connell concurred but disagreed with the majority opinion’s implied assertion that non-verbal communication is not a sufficient reason to peremptorily excuse a prospective juror.

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