Tuesday, June 9, 2015
S.C. Clarifies Standard of Review on Batson/Wheeler Motions
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The adequacy of a prosecutor’s reasons for using a peremptory challenge on a potential juror need not be reviewed on appeal if the defense fails to make out a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices were unanimous in affirming the conviction and death sentence of Royce Lyn Scott for the murder of 78-year-old Della Morris of Palm Springs in 1992. Five justices joined in the per curiam opinion, while two rejected the court’s holding as to the jury-selection issue but concurred in the judgment on the ground that the prosecutor’s reasons for striking two African Americans from the jury were plausible and race-neutral.
Morris was found dead in her bedroom by her brother on the morning of July 9, 1992. She appeared to have been smothered or strangled and to have been sexually assaulted.
Scott was linked to the murder following his arrest during a Palm Springs burglary. Blood, saliva, and hair samples taken from Scott were tested and implicated him in the attack on Morris, a former Los Angeles organizer of dance and theatrical events who had moved to Palm Springs, where she lived with a brother.
Jurors found Scott guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances of burglary, rape, and sodomy. Before trial, he pled guilty to several crimes he committed after the murder, including multiple counts of robbery, burglary, felonious assault, and battery.
In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence of other violent crimes committed by Scott.
On appeal, the defense argued that Riverside Superior Court Judge H. Morgan Dougherty should have granted a mistrial based on the prosecution using peremptory challenges to remove two of four African-American venire members from the panel.
Dougherty ruled that the defense failed to make out a prima facie case of discrimination.
One of the two prospective jurors, identified as R.C. had a son who had gone to prison a year or two earlier, and the prosecutor in that case was also prosecuting Scott. R.C. acknowledged having made statements accusing prosecutors in her son’s case of being racially motivated, but claimed she no longer had any “hard feelings” and felt she could be fair if picked for the jury.
The other stricken panelist, H.R., had checked several boxes on a questionnaire regarding how he viewed the death penalty. One of the statements that he indicated agreement with, was “I oppose the death penalty. I will never vote for the death of another person,” but he also checked off the statements “I have doubts about the death penalty, but I would not vote against it in every case” and “I neither favor nor oppose the death penalty.”
After a series of questions from the judge about the obvious contradictions, H.R. indicated that the “I have doubts” statement was “more the way I feel” than the others.
In denying the defense’s mistrial motion, Dougherty said he doubted that any prosecutor would have kept R.C. on the jury, and that there would “probably be a legitimate basis” for striking H.R. The prosecutor, after the judge clarified that he was not finding a prima facie case of discrimination, said that he struck H.R. because it was unclear where H.R. stood on the death penalty.
The judge denied the motion on the alternative grounds that there was no prima facie case racial bias, and that the prosecution’s reasons for the strikes gave no hint of purposeful discrimination.
The high court majority—Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Ming Chin, Carol Corrigan, Kathryn M. Werdegar and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar—said that because the judge rejected the defense contention at the first stage of the inquiry under People v. Wheeler, 22 Cal.3d 258 (1978) and Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986)—whether a prima facie showing was made, there was no need to review his alternative finding that the prosecution had rebutted any inference of bias.
The justices wrote:
“In sum, where (1) the trial court has determined that no prima facie case of discrimination exists, (2) the trial court allows or invites the prosecutor to state his or her reasons for excusing the juror for the record, (3) the prosecutor provides nondiscriminatory reasons, and (4) the trial court determines that the prosecutor’s nondiscriminatory reasons are genuine, an appellate court should begin its analysis of the trial court’s denial of the Batson/Wheeler motion with a review of the first-stage ruling.”
Justice Goodwin H. Liu, joined by Justice Leondra R. Kruger, argued in a separate concurrence that the trial judge’s acceptance of the prosecution’s reasons for striking jurors should always be reviewable.
“Today’s opinion holds that the trial court’s first-stage ruling is not moot and denies Scott’s claim at the first stage without evaluating the prosecutor’s stated reason for striking H.R.,” Liu wrote. “… In so doing, the court opts to resolve Batson’s inquiry into discriminatory purpose based on ‘needless and imperfect speculation’ as to why the prosecutor might have struck H.R., even though ‘actual answers’ to that question were stated by the prosecutor and evaluated by the trial court….This approach cannot be reconciled with the Batson framework and risks weakening the constitutional prohibition on racial discrimination in jury selection.”
The case is People v. Scott, 15 S.O.S. 2814.
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company