Thursday, May 18, 2006

CA: juror's "unsettling gaze", like of detective stories and resemblance to African-American judge sufficiently race-neutral reason for peremptory

People v Wells, __ NY3d __ [available here]

During jury selection for Mr. Wells' murder trial, the prosecutor exercised a peremptory challenge against an African-American woman. Defense counsel raised a Batson challenge (for the basics of Batson, go here and scroll down). The prosecutor's response is set out in the Court's majority decision (written by Judge Graffeo):

When asked by the trial court to provide race-neutral reasons for the removal of this woman, the prosecutor stated that the prospective juror had held her hand over her mouth when answering questions, which indicated to the prosecutor that the jury 'had something to hide.' The prosecutor also claimed that the jury had 'an unsettling gaze' that was 'difficult to deal with,' and remarked that the juror reminded her of a particular New York City judge.

(Wells, __ NY3d at __.)

The trial court found the prosecutor's explanation race neutral, and denied defense counsel's Batson challenge. The Appeals affirmed; from the majority opinion:

The prosecutor's reasons for exercising the peremptory challenge focused on the juror's demeanor (placing her hand over her mouth and having an "unsettling gaze") and fondness for detective stories (which might cause her to have certain expectations about the trial evidence). Furthermore, the prosecutor's reference to a particular judge, although in 'poor taste' as noted by the Appellate Division, was not facially race-based. Because the People's burden "is met by offering any facially neutral reason for the challenge--even if that reason is ill-founded--so long as the reason does not violate equal protection", and the trial court's findings are entitled to deference, we cannot say that the prosecutor's justifications for the use of the peremptory challenge were inadequate.

(Id. at __.)

Judge G.B. Smith concurred, and would have affirmed defendant's conviction only because trial defense counsel "fail[ed] to make an objection that the reason proffered by the prosecution was not clearly race/gender-neutral [and] failed to preserve this argument for appellate review." (Id. at __ [G.B. SMITH, J., dissenting].) From the concurrence:

[A]fter a defendant makes out a prima facie case of discrimination in the selection of jurors under Batson, the prosecution's explanation for the peremptory challenge must be unequivocally race/gender-neutral and related to the particular case to be tried. [...] Because one of the prosecutor's reasons for exercising a peremptory strike against this prospective juror was not unequivocally race/gender-neutral, I disagree with the above-mentioned conclusions reached by this Court and the Appellate Division. [...]

The prosecutor's statement regarding how the prospective juror reminded her of a named Supreme Court Justice, who is also an African-American woman, and how this made the prosecutor "anxious in a sort of [] emotional way," raised issues that should have been pursued during the voir dire. Not only is this statement insulting and irrational, it is wholly ambiguous. The proffered reason, on its face, is neither clearly race/gender-neutral, nor clearly race/gender-based, i.e., there is no indication from the prosecutor's explanation as to what about the prospective juror reminded the prosecutor of the name Supreme Court Justice.


Since at least one of the reasons given by the prosecutor was arguably based on gender or race, the trial court should have either clarified the prosecutor's statement or upheld the Batson challenge. (Id.)

This case also dealt with the issue of duplicity as it relates to a charge of Attempted Murder. In a nutshell: defendant took potshots at two cops and was indicted on one count of Attempted Murder in the Second Degree. On appeal, defendant argued that the one count of the indictment actually alleged two crimes because there were two potential and intended victims. Since actual death is not an element of Attempted Murder 2nd, Judge Graffeo (I think correctly) held that the charge was not duplicitous because the indictment "charged a single crime based on a single incident--engaging in conduct (the shooting at Detectives Molina and Weston) that tended to effect the crime of murder while acting with the intent to cause the death of a police officer or another person." (Id at __.) Nicole at Sui Generis has her own thoughts on Wells here.