The Sixth Amendment guarantees citizens who have been charged with a crime the right to a trial by an impartial jury. The jury selection process serves to ensure that a panel of jurors is chosen fairly. Accordingly, under Maryland criminal law, prosecutors (the state’s counsel) and defense counsel are each afforded a certain number of “peremptory” challenges to the selection of a prospective juror. Clearly, the impartiality of a jury can have a dramatic impact in the outcome of a criminal case. To ensure that this aspect of your case — as well as every issue that arises from the moment of arrest — is handled fairly and appropriately, you are encouraged to contact an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
Counsel in a criminal case may object to a prospective juror in one of two ways: 1) asserting a challenge “for cause,” or 2) employing a “peremptory” challenge – an objection without needing to give a reason. Peremptory challenges are limited and may not be invoked on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity. In order to determine whether a peremptory challenge is fair and legitimate, Maryland courts apply a three-step process established by the United States Supreme Court in the Batson v. Kentucky decision.
Under the Batson test, the party raising the challenge must provide some evidence that the opposing party’s peremptory challenge to a prospective juror was exercised on one or more of the constitutionally prohibited biases. If the objecting party sufficiently establishes bias, the burden of proof shifts to the proponent of the strike to explain that the challenge is neutral as to race, gender, and ethnicity. Once that occurs, it is up to the court to decide whether the opponent of the strike has established purposeful discrimination.
Recently, the highest court in Maryland was asked to determine whether a trial court correctly applied the Batson test to a jury selection process, in a case in which the defendants were convicted of second-degree murder and other related offenses. Here, counsel for the State stated five peremptory challenges to African-American men. The defendants’ attorney objected to the challenges as racially motivated. The State offered explanations for each of the five challenges. The trial court accepted the explanations as non-discriminatory and allowed the case to move forward with the impaneled jury. The court of special appeals affirmed the convictions, concluding that the trial court had not erred in ruling that the claim failed for lack of proof of racial discrimination and that the prosecutor’s explanation was race-neutral.
The Court of Appeals granted the petitioners’ writ of certiorari to address the legality of the State’s response to an allegation of racial and gender discrimination in the use of a peremptory challenge. Specifically, the prosecutor explained that she intended to replace the “stricken African-American male juror with another African-American male.” Defense counsel argued that this explanation is not neutral with respect to gender and race. The Court agreed with the defense and ruled that the prosecutor’s explanation violated the Batson test.
Interestingly enough, when a court determines that a Batson violation has occurred, it may either order a limited remand of the matter back to the trial court or instead order a new trial. In this case, the Court ruled that the petitioners were entitled to a new trial. This case is a terrific example of the extreme importance of understanding how criminal defense strategies can change the course of a case. Reaching out to an experienced criminal defense attorney is one of the best ways to assess your case. Anthony A. Fatemi has extensive experience handling criminal defense cases throughout Maryland. Our office can work diligently to develop a strong strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
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