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Tenth Circuit Reverses State Conviction Based on Batson: Johnson, 19-5091

The Tenth Circuit Reversed a state conviction based on a Batson Claim.

Johnson was implicated in a murder-for-hire case in the state of Oklahoma after driving a getaway car.  He was charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder.  He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on each count, consecutively.  He went through all of his state remedies before filing the 2254. 

Johnson’s Jury Selection

Johnson, an African American, was present at jury selection when the court utilized the first strikes on minorities.  The prosecutor gave a reason as to why the first person was struck, noting that he had a Ph.D. in the Liberal Arts.  It was noted that this person was African American.  After the sixth person was struck, defense counsel noted that five out of the six strikes were minorities.  The TRIAL COURT responded with a reason why one of those persons was struck (put a bookmark there). 

Then the prosecutor asked to strike another person later.  The prosecutor offered a race-neutral reason for that person without even being prompted by the court or the defense, that being that she was a drug counselor and a pastor.  The court denied that challenge but later “explained that it had recently been reminded that the absence of any minorities on the jury “was not a basis to prevent a strike”; instead, “there needed to be a finding that there was either [a] systematic or [a] specific discriminatory practice…”Thus, because the absence of any minorities was the rationale for the trial court’s decision to reject the prosecutor’s peremptory challenge to Ms. Williams, the trial court acknowledged that it “made an error.”

Johnson then raised a Batson challenge on direct appeal, indicating that the “prosecutor systematically removed minorities from the jury.”  On the 2254 the Federal District Court also denied relief stating that there were no exceptional circumstances and that the habeas court must “defer to the state trial judge’s finding of no racial motivation…” 

The Tenth Circuit Appeal

The Tenth Circuit noted that the trial court provided its OWN reasons for the strikes, “speculating as to what the prosecutor’s reasons might have been.  And paradoxically, it did so after declaring that it would not “state [the prosecutor’s] reasons... The trial court also later rejected the prosecutor’s proffered reason for striking [the Pastor].”  

Further, the court noted that we look to the prosecutor’s reasons and demeanor to determine if the strikes were appropriate:  The second step of Batson specifically requires “[t]he prosecutor . . . [to] articulate a neutral explanation related to the particular case to be tried…As the Batson Court explained and as the Court later reiterated, once a prima facie case of racial discrimination has been established, the prosecutor must provide race-neutral reasons for the strikes…And Batson means what it says: the court must ask the prosecutor to provide reasons, rather than merely speculating about what such reasons might be.”

“Thus, when a trial court offers its own speculation as to the prosecutor’s reasons for striking minority jurors, it essentially disregards its own core function under Batson—to evaluate the reasons offered by the prosecutor, including the prosecutor’s demeanor and other contextual information, in order to determine the prosecutor’s true intent.”

The Tenth Circuit indicated that the Oklahoma High Court made the wrong decision when they denied Batson relief as a result of this. 

The Tenth Circuit also indicated that Johnson had done enough to show a prima facie case:

“to establish an inference of discrimination, Johnson primarily alleges a pattern of discrimination in which the prosecutor used five of his first six peremptory strikes to excuse minority jurors. And a prosecutor’s pattern of strikes against minority jurors is enough, on its own, to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.” 

The Batson Reconstruction Hearing 

However, the court determined that because the court did not hold an evidentiary hearing, the state never presented evidence about the prosecutor’s actual, nondiscriminatory reasons for the strikes.  Because of this the court remanded the case back to the district court for a Batson Reconstruction hearing. 

“A Batson reconstruction hearing is “an evidentiary hearing that takes place some[]time after the trial, where the prosecutor testifies to [his or] her actual reasons for striking the venire[ ]members in question, or the State presents circumstantial evidence of those reasons.” …” “If the district court concludes that a Batson reconstruction hearing is impossible or unsatisfactory, it must grant habeas relief in the form of an order that Johnson be released from custody unless the State grants him a new trial within 120 days from the entry of the district court’s order.”

The Tenth Circuit sent the case back down to the District Court.  19-5091

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