Peremptory challenges are an essential tool used by trial lawyers. They allow an attorney to object to a proposed juror during selection without giving a reason or justification. However, when peremptory challenges are coupled with racial bias, dangerous results can occur. The case of Miles v. California is pending before the Supreme Court and asks the question of whether a court may consider reasons distinguishing stricken jurors from those accepted by the prosecutor when the prosecutor did not cite a reason.
What happened in the Miles case?
The Miles case concerns Johnny Duane Miles, a Black man charged with the rape and murder of a white woman. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to death. The issue here is not whether Miles was innocent or guilty, but instead whether Mile’s case would have turned out differently if the jury selection process was different. During jury selection, the prosecutor raised some eyebrows when he used peremptory challenges to remove every single Black juror from the main panel. The prosecutor tried to justify his strikes but it seemed that race was the only factor because the prosecutor even removed a young Black man named Simeon Greene, who had pro-prosecution and pro-law enforcement beliefs, which would help the prosecution.
In the landmark case of Batson v. Kentucky, the United States Supreme Court held that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits prosecutors from using peremptory challenges to remove prospective jurors on the basis of race. Because it can be difficult to prove if a juror was struck on the basis of race rather than another unrelated reason, lawyers will raise a Batson Challenge if the lawyer believes the juror was removed based on race. Once the party who brings a Batson Challenge makes a prima facie showing of discrimination, the other party must articulate a nondiscriminatory reason for its peremptory challenges.
However, in California, Batson Challenges usually do not succeed. Since Batson was decided in 1987, the California Supreme Court has reviewed 135 cases in which trial courts have denied a Batson challenge, but it has only reversed two. The case of Miles asks the Supreme Court to rethink the current Batson framework. Right now, the California system allows the court to do a comparative juror analysis when there is a Batson challenge. This means that the prosecutor’s reason for striking a black panelist applies to an otherwise similar non-black person who is permitted to serve on the jury. This is a powerful tool to rid discrimination, but the California Supreme Court has not ruled that a comparative juror analysis supports reversal in three decades.
Miles appealed and argued that the trial court erred in accepting the prosecutor’s justifications for his preemptive strikes in his case. Miles argued that the reasons were pretextual. Miles pointed to a comparative juror analysis that showed the prosecutor had accepted non-Black jurors who provided answers like Mr. Greene’s. The Supreme Court previously decided a case called Miller-El, which rejects the California Supreme Court’s approach. In Miller-El, the court ruled that a court conducting a comparative juror analysis may not consider justifications distinguishing between jurors that the prosecutor did not offer at trial. For example, prosecutors will often include new justifications on appeal. However, the new justifications the prosecutors offer later are said to be irrelevant because they were reasons the prosecution itself did not provide at the time. These new reasons are often thought to be pretextual to cover up the real reason for strikes – racial bias. The Supreme Court stressed in a recently decided case called Flowers that equal justice under law requires a criminal trial free of racial discrimination in the jury selection process.
The Supreme Court must grant cert and resolve this pressing issue. Racial bias during jury selection is a problem that runs rampant in the criminal justice system and must be addressed. To learn more about important cases pending before the Supreme Court, follow Attorney DelSignore on Facebook.