How a ‘Batson Challenge’ Works and How It Can Help You Avoid Potential Racial Discrimination in the Jury Selection Process

One of the most basic concepts underlying criminal trials in this country is the notion of fundamental fairness in the process. One element of that fundamental fairness is having your guilt or innocence determined by a jury of your peers. Toward that end, the law says that the prosecution cannot engage in racial discrimination in the jury selection process. When it comes to protecting your rights, before, during, and after your criminal trial, make sure you have a skilled Maryland criminal defense lawyer advocating for you and protecting you from this and other forms of unfairness.

One of the most essential tools in the criminal defense attorney’s “toolbag” when it comes to thwarting racial discrimination in the jury selection process is something called a “Batson challenge.” (That name comes from the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case of Batson v. Kentucky, in which a Black man was convicted by an all-white jury after the prosecutor struck all of the Black potential jurors during voir dire.)

To give you an example of what the Batson challenge process looks like, we have a recent assault and theft case from Cecil County. B.B., a Black man, was on trial for second-degree assault, conspiracy to commit robbery, conspiracy to commit second-degree assault, and conspiracy to commit theft.

The way a pool of potential jurors is whittled down to actual jurors is through a process called “voir dire.” The potential jurors are asked a series of questions. At the end of that process, either the prosecution or defendant can ask to eliminate a potential juror for cause. Alternately, either side can use what’s called a “peremptory challenge,” which means objecting to a potential juror without giving a reason.

If you believe the prosecution has used its peremptory challenges in a racially, ethnically, or sexually discriminatory way, you can deploy the Batson challenge. That challenge requires the prosecution to give a reason for why it used the peremptory challenge that you believed was discriminatory.

B.B.’s trial took place in Cecil County, which is a place that is very predominantly white. As of 2000, the county was 88% white, 7% Black and 3% mixed race. When the trial court collected a pool of potential jurors, exactly one — a middle-aged woman — was Black, and the prosecution eliminated her with one of its peremptory challenges. B.B.’s defense wisely made a Batson challenge.

The Prosecution Must Have a Legitimate Reason for the Objection

Once you do that, the trial judge must go through a three-step process to determine whether or not the peremptory challenge was improper. In this process, it works a bit like a discrimination case in employment law. The side asked to defend its action (in this case, the prosecution) will likely present a reasonable and legitimate basis for taking the action it did. After that, the other side can still succeed if they can show that the legitimate decision-making process alleged was deployed in a discriminatory way.

Take, for example, a Black man who is fired from his job for being late to work several times. On the surface, that’s a valid basis. If, however, the man finds proof that he had multiple white coworkers who were just as late just as often as he was, but the employer did not discipline them, then he may have a winning case.

Similarly, in B.B.’s trial, the prosecutor said he used a peremptory challenge on the lone Black potential juror because that woman’s mother had been the victim of a theft crime that did not result in any criminal convictions, and the prosecutor purportedly worried that these facts might make the woman less confident in law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office.

A Legitimate Basis But an Improper Application

On the surface, that’s a legitimate set of reasons. The flaw, which B.B. correctly pointed out on appeal, was the discriminatory application of this rationale. The Black potential juror was one of three potential jurors who told the court that they (or a loved one) had been the victims of unsolved theft crimes. According to the appeals court, “when weighing which juror may have had a more negative outlook of the police or prosecution, it appears to us that juror number thirteen [the Black woman] would be the least likely to have a negative outlook.” Yet, the prosecutor used a peremptory challenge on the Black woman and did not use peremptory challenges on either of the two white potential jurors who had been impacted by unsolved theft crimes. Juror number four, a white woman, who had been the direct victim of a theft crime that occurred just two weeks before the trial, would have been a far more likely target, according to the court, yet the prosecution did not challenge her.

Based on this comparative analysis, the appeals court concluded that the state’s reasoning was not valid, which meant that B.B. was entitled to a new trial.

What this case can tell you is that there are many tools at the disposal of a skilled defense lawyer that he or she can use to protect your rights to the fullest, give you the fairest possible process, and provide you with the best chances of a successful outcome. To put that kind of powerful legal representation in your corner, call upon the knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC. We have many years of providing top-level advocacy to people on trial in Maryland, so contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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