Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Rules on Race-Based Peremptory Strikes in Jury Selection

Sketch_of_an_overview_of_the_courtroom_that_includes_the_judges_bench_and_the_defense_table._24.jpgThe U.S. Supreme Court has developed a set of rules over the past few decades to protect the rights of racial minorities during jury selection, including a ban of the use of peremptory challenges by prosecutors to strike prospective jurors based solely on race. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently reviewed a defendant’s claim that the prosecutor improperly excused a prospective juror based on her race. Blackman v. Texas, No. PD-1575-12, slip op. (Tex. Crim. App., Dec. 11, 2013). Although the Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed their ruling, holding that the Supreme Court precedent cited by the lower appellate court did not apply to the case.

Racial discrimination has been and continues to be a problem throughout the judicial system. During jury selection, known as voir dire, attorneys for both sides have a limited number of “peremptory challenges,” with which they can strike prospective jurors for any or no particular reason. In cases where the defendant is a racial minority, prosecutors have at times sought to strike prospective jurors of the same race. The pattern of race-based peremptory strikes has negatively affected the rights of certain defendants.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this practice violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). This case allows a defendant to allege that a prosecutor’s peremptory challenge was improperly based on race. If the defendant can demonstrate a race-based motive by a preponderance of evidence, the burden shifts to the state to provide a race-neutral explanation.

The Supreme Court applied Batson to a specific set of circumstances in Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472 (2008). The defendant, an African-American man, challenged the prosecutor’s use of a peremptory challenge to strike an African-American prospective juror. The Supreme Court found that the prosecutor’s two explanations for the challenge–one based on the individual’s demeanor, and the other based on the juror’s supposed concern about missing too much work due to a trial–were merely pretexts for discriminatory intent.

The Blackman case presents a similar set of facts. The prosecutor used a peremptory challenge to dismiss an African-American prospective juror. When defense counsel made a Batson objection, the prosecutor offered several explanations, including concerns over the “vibe” he got from her, the “tone” she expressed during voir dire, and her prior service on a criminal jury. The trial court denied the defense motion, and the jury convicted the defendant of a felony drug offense. The defendant raised the Batson objection again on appeal.

The Court of Appeals found that Snyder was controlling based on the prosecutor’s ostensibly race-neutral explanations for the peremptory challenge, and it reversed the conviction. The Court of Criminal Appeals reinstated the conviction, however, holding that the lower appellate court had erred in finding Snyder controlling. It found that the state did not offer those particular explanations in its appellate brief, and that the Court of Appeals therefore should not have relied on them. The court further held that, if the race-neutral explanations were never in evidence, the defendant never made a sufficient showing of discriminatory intent to shift the burden of proof to the state.

Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has spent more than twenty years fighting for the rights of west Texas defendants in criminal cases, drawing on his experience as an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor. To schedule a confidential consultation regarding your legal matter, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

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Photo credit: By Beinecke Library [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.