11 January 2006

Reflections on Batson after a jury trial

I make no secret that I think the Batson principle is wrongheaded as a constitutional matter (for reasons not important to elucidate here); nevertheless, I fully and freely acknowledge that the broader principle of Batson is unassailable as a moral and even as a trial matter: that strikes should not be made solely on an improper racial motive. A case in point is the jury trial I concluded yesterday. I took pause at one point during this serious bank robbery and attempted murder case to reflect that almost by chance the jury was incredibly "diverse." I say by chance because I certainly couldn't give a damn about diversity for it's own sake, since I assume that even 12 white males can fairly hear a case.

In this case, however, our jury when picked consisted of a majority of women, including one black woman and one woman clearly of Asian ancestry. We also had one young black man. The jury foreman was a woman.

This good cross-section of our community (a mostly white, mostly conservative suburb of Richmond with a growing number of black middle-class professionals) heard a serious case, involving a black defendant who robbed a white bank teller and took a very deliberate shot at a black bank customer in the parking lot. Identity was the primary contested issue, and though they left me sweating for two hours, the jury found the defendant guilty.

What surprised me pleasantly was that despite the defendant's age (51) and the mandatory minimum sentences the jury had to impose for the various counts (33 years), this group recommended a sentence of 53 years.

I reflected afterwards that what mattered to me most in picking these jurors was not race, but other facts such as apparent education level, job status, and personal appearance. I kept the black woman on the panel because she was a professional woman, who was well-dressed, and appeared interested in the proceedings. I kept the young black man on for much the same reasons. Yet I struck a young white male because he was a student and was not as well dressed, and looked a little scruffy.

As a prosecutor, very aware of the Batson issue, it is a pleasure to see so many educated, middle-income, home-owning (this info is provided on our jury pool list) black residents of my county to choose from. I find them to be quality jurors, and their availability makes Batson issues moot for the most part. It was as it should be; race was not a part of the trial at all, either in the jury selection, or in the case in-chief, or in the sentencing. I doubt even ten years ago, when I started prosecuting, that this would occur so easily. Hopefully ten years from now, it won't be noteworthy enough to merit a posting like this one.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tom,

I recall looking at the panel at one point and having the same thought. I'm glad that someone else made the same refreshing observations.

Rick said...

Tom:

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on Batson procedure. It always seemed to me that while Batson's goals were laudable, the actual process was a joke. The defense would allege a Batson violation; the judge would say that there was no prima facie case but would invite the prosecutor to respond anyway (protecting the record) -- and theprosecutor would - of course - claim a race-neutral reason.

The litany of race-neutral reasons would change from week to week, even from the same prosecutor... the same guy that struck a young man last week because he didn't go to college would strike a young man this week because he DID go to college. And the judge would nod solemnly and find that the prosecutor's explanation was credible.

Bitter? Nah...