Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Too white to strike? Reverse-Batson rears its head

Today's unpublished Strong opinion shows the Sixth Circuit wrestling with the always-problematic reverse-Batson claim, made especially problematic here in light of some, shall we say, unusual comments made by the district judge during voir dire.

In a case with two African-American defendants, defense counsel exercised peremptory strikes against three white members of the jury pool. After the government raised a reverse-Batson challenge, the court determined that the defense had presented racially-neutral reasons for two of the strikes, but found that the last one was "poorly supported" and "pretextual." Defense counsel offered several explanations for striking the juror, including that he appeared to have worked for another potential juror and that he had stared at one of the defendants during voir dire. The court believed that both of those explanations were factually unsupported. But the court did not stop there. Instead, it unfortunately implied that the third juror was somehow just too white to strike:

"[T]he reason it appears to have been [pretextual] is that [the juror], who of all of our jurors, is actually remarkably white. He's just plain pale. He makes [defense counsel] and me look like we're rosy complected. That probably sounds bad, but he's just very pale, so, unfortunately, I don't know that that had anything to do with it."

Indeed, it did sound bad. Although the Sixth Circuit ultimately upheld the reverse-Batson determination, the panel "strongly disapprove[d] of the statements regarding relative skin tones that the district court made, and believe[d] that it could have addressed the government's Batson claim in any number of different (and more appropriate) ways."

No comments: