Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Ninth Circuit Orders New Trial in Murder of NFL Star’s Daughter
Court Says Prosecutors Struck Potential African-American Jurors for Pretextual Reasons
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday ordered a new trial for a San Mateo man convicted of strangling the daughter of former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff in 1999.
Granting Mohammed Ali’s petition for habeas corpus, the panel ruled that the prosecutor’s proffered race-neutral reasons for striking the only African-American members of the jury pool were pretextual. Ali was convicted of the first degree murder of his girlfriend, Tracey Biletnikoff, before San Mateo Superior Court Judge Carl Holm.
Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe exercised 15 peremptory challenges during the four days of jury selection. Among the jurors he challenged were a female public school employee identified in court documents as M.C. and Darrell Jefferson, a male software designer.
Wagstaffe explained that he had excused M.C. because he was concerned her prior contact with the criminal justice system during the prosecution of her stepson for molesting her daughter would bias her as a juror.
He also noted M.C.’s statement that she hoped that the attorneys would operate in a “decent and respectable manner,” insisting that the attorneys’ conduct should not influence a juror’s judgment and that he was concerned M.C. might resent an aggressive cross-examination by him.
Additionally, Wagstaffe maintained that M.C.’s hesitation before asserting her Christian faith would not prevent her from sitting in judgment of another indicated that she would by unable to perform her obligations as a juror.
The prosecutor then expressed concern with Jefferson’s statement that all people “make decisions as we go along,” suggesting that Jefferson’s “constant decision changing” would cause him to “have difficulty arriving at a conclusion here.”
He also claimed to have taken offense to Jefferson’s flippant answers and expressed concern with Jefferson’s “casualness” in his interactions with the trial court.
Wagstaffe said he felt Jefferson would favor the defense as his two brothers and father-in-law were attorneys and that he claimed to have discussed criminal appeals with one of his brothers.
Holm found Wagstaffe’s proffered justifications for exercising the peremptory challenges were reasonable and the case proceeded to trial.
No African-Americans remained on the jury as finally constituted, which found Ali guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 55 years to life in state prison.
The First District Court of Appeal affirmed Ali’s conviction on direct appeal in an unpublished opinion by Justice Patricia K. Sepulveda. She was joined by Justices Timothy A. Reardon and Maria P. Rivera.
Div. Four denied Ali’s state habeas corpus petition without further analysis and the California Supreme Court denied Ali’s petition for review. It later rejected his state habeas petition in a one-line disposition.
Ali’s federal habeas petition was heard by U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton of the Northern District of California. Hamilton conducted a comparative juror analysis which she said “called into question” the prosecutor’s reasons for striking M.C., but concluded Ali had not shown purposeful discrimination based on the totality of the facts.
Writing for the Ninth Circuit, Judge Marsha S. Berzon said Hamilton’s ruling was clearly erroneous as each of the prosecutor’s justifications for striking M.C. was “logically implausible, undermined by a comparative juror analysis, and otherwise unsupported by the record.”
The prosecutor’s assertion that he excused M.C. because of the molestation incident was “wholly unpersuasive,” Berzon said, because any bias on M.C.’s part “logically would favor the prosecution” as she reported only positive experiences with the criminal justice system arising from that incident and the murder victim, like M.C.’s daughter, was a young woman who was the victim of a domestic assault.
Berzon suggested that the prosecutor actually appeared to favor jurors who had been victims of domestic abuse or knew such a victim since he accepted two white jurors who had indicated their experiences might affect their objectivity.
As for M.C.’s expressed expectations concerning attorney behavior, Berzon said M.C.’s views were not only reasonable, but very similar to those of a juror who the prosecutor did not challenge, further noting that M.C. never specifically said she would view “aggressive” cross-examination as unprofessional and hold that against either side.
The jurist also reasoned that the prosecutor’s failure to question M.C. about her religious views or the implications of those views was indicative of pretext.
Turning to the challenge of Jefferson, Berzon acknowledged that the validity of the prosecutor’s decision was a “close question” as the record reflected Jefferson twice gave responses that could have viewed as sarcastic or hostile and no unchallenged juror made similar remarks or disclosed a close relationship to a criminal defense attorney.
But because Jefferson was not the only African-American challenged and he was the only other African-American potential juror, Berzon reasoned that the prosecutor’s dismissal of Jefferson served to underlie her conclusion that the prosecutor’s motive in excusing Jefferson was race-based.
Senior Judge A. Wallace Tashima and visiting U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin of the Central District of California joined Berzon in her decision, which Wagstaffe told The Associated Press the state will appeal.
The case is Ali v. Hickman, 07-16731.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company