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First Circuit Grants Habeas Relief on Batson Claim

In Porter v. Coyne-Fague, a habeas appeal based on a Rhode Island Case, the First Circuit held that Batson vs. Kentucky was violated.

Porter was charged in a state case with murder, firearms offenses, and assault with a deadly weapon. During Porter’s jury selection, only one member of the venire was African American, Juror 103. Juror 103 requested a sidebar with the trial judge, explained he worked at a state institution, and stated that the outcome of the case could affect his treatment at work. Despite this concern, the potential juror confirmed that he had no bias or prejudice and that his fear of workplace retaliation would not affect his ability to be a fair and impartial juror.

The state then exercised a peremptory strike against Juror 103. Without being asked to justify the reason for the strike, the prosecutor volunteered an explanation that “the State’s take [is Juror 103 is] a member of the African-American community, he’s the only one on the panel who is, and if he were to vote guilty there could be consequences to it . . . but if he were to vote not guilty, I don’t think he would have any consequence.”

Defense counsel objected to the strike based on Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986) which held a prosecutor may not exercise a peremptory strike of a prospective juror based on racial motivation. Consistent with Batson, the trial court proceeded to determine whether the prosecutor’s proffered explanation was a race-neutral and credible explanation. The trial judge, seemingly placing himself in the prosecutor’s shoes, determined that state’s explanation for its strike was “race-neutral” and excused Juror 103 from the panel. Porter proceeded to trial and was ultimately convicted.

Porter brought his Batson issue to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Without addressing the prosecutor’s remarks regarding the defendant’s and prospective juror’s race, the state supreme court held that the prosecutor’s reason for striking Juror 103 was based on the prospective juror’s concerns and not race-related. The United States Supreme Court subsequently denied Porter’s petition for certiorari.

Porter next brought his Batson claim in a timely federal habeas petition. There, the district court concluded that the state’s proffered reason for striking Juror 103 was in fact race based and Porter’s rights under Batson were violated. However, the court declined to grant Porter’s petition so as not to upset the state supreme court’s prior ruling. Porter appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the First Circuit held that the state supreme court’s account of the prosecutor’s explanation for striking Juror 103 differed from what actually appeared in the trial transcript. According to the state court, “the prosecutor reasoned that a strike was necessary based on Juror 103’s concerns - raised at the outset - about potential retaliation he could face as a juror in this case.” But, the First Circuit held, the prosecutor’s actual explanation was premised on a mistrust that Juror 103 could be fair and impartial on the ground that Porter and Juror 103 were both black.

The circuit court decided that the state court either unreasonably applied Batson or based its decision on an unreasonable determination of the facts. The court held the prosecutor’s explanation was inherently discriminatory and violated Batson.

The First Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of Porter’s habeas petition and remanded to the district court with instructions to grant the habeas writ, ordering the state courts to vacate Porter’s convictions and either bring a new trial within 90 days or release him.

Jeremy's Takeaway:

There is a lot to process in this case. First, it is mind boggling that a state prosecutor would offer a racially biased, yet purportedly racially-neutral, explanation for striking the only African American juror on a venire. Second, the state court’s acceptance of the prosecutor’s explanation as not violating Batson is even more concerning. Third, the state supreme court completely misstated the prosecutor’s explanation in a way to wholly avoid the racially charged comments in the prosecutor’s explanation.

Moreover, on habeas review, we see a district court agree that the prosecution’s strike of the only African American juror was racially motivated and violated Batson, but declined to grant the writ so as not to upset the state supreme court’s ruling.

The Batson issue occurred in 2013. The First Circuit finally granted Porter relief in 2022, nearly a decade later. Although this case was an appeal of a 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition from a state case, it truly shows the importance of habeas relief. This Batson issue went through the trial court, state supreme court, U.S. Supreme Court, and U.S. District Court before finally being resolved by the First Circuit.

Porter v. Coyne-Fague, __F.4th__, (1st Cir. 2022)

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