In a per curiam opinion (Felkner v. Jackson), the SCT recently overturned a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which had held that a prosecutor wrongfully dismissed two prospective black jurors. This case arose from the conviction of Steven Frank Jackson for sexual assault of a 72-year old female. In appealing his guilty verdict, the defendant argued that the prosecutor committed a Batson violation by improperly striking 2 of the 3 prospective black jurors. The state courts in denying the defendant's appeal found that the prosecutor provided race neutral grounds for striking the prospective black jurors.
The defendant then sought habeas relief in Federal District Court. In denying the defendant's claim, the federal trial judge cited the 1996 Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which states "relief may not be granted unless the state court adjudication 'resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.'" In applying AEDPA, the federal trial judge found the actions by the California state courts to be reasonable.
The 9th Circuit subsequently overruled the Federal District Court in an unpublished 3-paragraph opinion. To say the opinion was cursory is an understatement. Here is the lone sentence to support overruling the Federal District Court: “The prosecutor’s proffered race-neutral bases for peremptorily striking the two African-American jurors were not sufficient to counter the evidence of purpose-ful discrimination in light of the fact that two out of three prospective African-American jurors were stricken, and the record reflected different treatment of comparably situated jurors.”
The SCT found the 9th Circuit's analysis of this case to be "inexplicable as it is unexplained." According to the SCT, the 9th Circuit's decision failed to "discuss any specific facts or mention the reasoning of the other three courts that had rejected Jackson's claim." The SCT went on to say that "[t]here was simply no basis for the Ninth Circuit to reach the opposite conclusion, particularly in such a dismissive manner."
For more information on Felkner v. Jackson see the following:
Today, the SCT issued its decision in Skilling v. U.S. As some of you may recall, Jeffrey Skilling, the former CEO of Enron, was convicted of various criminal fraud charges related to the bankruptcy and ultimate collapse of Enron. For those interested in learning about Skilling's fraud charges and the Honest Services Doctrine, I recommend visiting the White Collar Crime blog. This post will only discuss the change of venue issue.
Prior to going to trial, Skilling requested a change of venue because of the adverse publicity that he and other defendants received in the Houston area, which happened to be home to Enron. The SCT in upholding the trial's court's denial of Skilling's change of venue motion determined that "pretrial publicity and community prejudice did not prevent Skilling from obtaining a fair trial. He did not establish that a presumption of juror prejudice arose or that actual bias infected the jury that tried him."
In making this determination, the SCT compared the facts of Skilling to those of Rideau v. Louisiana, a prior case in which the SCT presumed jury prejudice because the defendant's confession was broadcast on television to the local community.
In distinguishing Skilling from Rideau, the court made the following determinations.
(1) Rideau was tried in a small community. Skilling was tried in the 4th largest city in the U.S.
(2) The local news stories about Enron were not blatantly prejudicial.
(3) There was approximately a 4-year gap between Enron's bankruptcy and Skilling's trial.
(4) Skilling was acquitted on 9 counts.
As for the issue of the 5-hour voir-dire and whether Skilling suffered "actual prejudice," in the jury selection process, the SCT said "No hard-and-fast formula dictates the necessary depth or breadth of voir dire." Justice Sotomayor who wrote the dissenting opinion found that "actual prejudice" did exist and the "the District Court's 5-hour voir dire was manifestly insufficient to identify and remove biased jurors." Justice Sotomayor was in agreement, however, with the majority with respect to the previously discussed presumed prejudice issue.
For more commentary on the SCT's ruling, see the following links.
Yesterday, the SCT in a unanimous decision overturned the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals grant of Habeas relief to Diapolis Smith. In deciding Berghuis v. Smith, the SCT determined that the defendant failed to provide evidence that Kent County’s method of selecting its jury pool caused the “systemic exclusion” of African-Americans. Furthermore, the SCT disagreed with the defendant’s argument that a so-called laundry list of factors like excusing potential jurors based on mere allegations of hardship led to a systemic exclusion of potential African-American jurors.
For the SCT's complete opinion go here. For more background information on Berghuis v. Smith go here. For a critique of Justice Thomas' concurring opinion go here.
See also the following links for a general discussion of the case:
ABA Journal:Laundry List’ of Reasons for Lack of Jury Diversity Loses in Supreme Court
In a per curiam opinion, the SCT in Thaler v. Haynes overturned the 6th Circuit's decision to grant Mr. Haynes a new trial. In overturning the Court of Appeals, the SCT found that the lower court read too much into both Batson v. Kentucky and Snyder v. Louisiana. The SCT went on to say that those two cases do not require a trial judge to personally observe (voir dire here was handled by two different judges) a potential juror's behavior when ruling on a peremptory challenge based on demeanor.
Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Berghuis v. Smith, 08-1402. The transcripts from the oral argument can be found here. Below is a prior AP report about the case.
State officials are asking the high court to overturn a decision by the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
That court threw out the murder conviction of Diapolis Smith for shooting a man in Grand Rapids in 1991.
Smith, who is black, was found guilty by an all-white jury. He said his constitutional right to a jury that represents the community was violated because there were only three blacks in the pool of 60 to 100 prospective jurors.
He argued that Kent County's prospective jurors in 1993 were routinely excused because of child care, a lack of transportation or a conflict with work. Smith also said blacks in Grand Rapids were being diverted to jury duty in a city court, which took them off the rolls for a year.
Blacks in the city made up 85 percent of all blacks in the county.
The appeals court said those decisions resulted in fewer African-Americans being eligible for service on circuit court juries, calling it "systematic exclusion."
For more background information on Berghuis see the posts below.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered a federal appeals court to reconsider the claims of a Georgia death row inmate who is challenging his rape and murder conviction based on some unusual chocolate gifts given to the trial judge and bailiff.
Some jurors hearing the case against defendant Marcus Wellons gave the trial judge chocolate shaped as male genitalia and the bailiff chocolate shaped as female breasts.
In a 5-4 ruling(PDF), the U.S. Supreme Court in a per curiam opinion ordered the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider whether Wellons is entitled to discovery and a hearing in light of a high court ruling
As reported by several news sites, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCT) today in Presley v. Georgia decided that a defendant has a constitutional right to an open voir dire.
In Presley, the defendant claimed that his 6th Amendment right to a public trial was violated when the trial court excluded his uncle from voir dire. The SCT, following its prior decision in Press Enterprise v. Superior Court where it held that the public has a First Amendment right to view a trial, found that the defendant has a 6th Amendment right to a public trial.
The Court determined that "there is no legitimate reason, at least in the context of jury selection proceedings, to give one who asserts a First Amendment privilege greater rights to insist on public proceedings than the accused has."
The Court went on to say that "the right to an open trial may give way in certain cases to other rights or interests." However, the Court noted that "trial courts are required to consider alternatives to closure when they are not offered by the parties." The trial court in Presley never took this step.
The dissent filed by Justices Thomas and Scalia disagreed with the summary nature by which the case was decided. The dissenters further argued that the majority opinion "decides by implication an unstated premise: that jury voir dire is part of the 'public trial' that the 6th Amendment guarantees."