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Monday, September 20, 2021


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C.A. Reverses Murder Convictions Based on Juror Exclusion

Opinion Says Woman Improperly Challenged by Prosecution Based on Support of Black Lives Matter Movement


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The First District Court of Appeal on Friday reversed the convictions of three Blacks for the murder in 2012 of two persons of the same race, based on the exclusion of a woman from the jury who expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Also reversed was the conviction of a fourth defendant, also Black, for the attempted dissuading of a witness and offenses of which she was convicted in a previous trial.

Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Clare Marie Maier erred in denying the defendants’ Batson/Wheeler motion challenging as racially discriminatory the prosecutor’s use of a peremptory challenge to disqualify a Black venireperson identified as “Juror 275,” Presiding Justice James M. Humes of Div. One declared.

He said the defendants “established a prima facie case of discrimination at the first stage of the Batson/Wheeler analysis,” that the prosecutor provided a plausible explanation at the second step—“that the juror was hostile when asked about supporting Black Lives Matter and had ‘anti-prosecution issues’ ”—but that, at the third step, the explanation “should not have been credited.”

The prospective juror had mentioned her allegiance to the Black Lives Matter movement in a questionnaire.

Prosecutor’s Comments

In an initial response to the Batson/Wheeler motion as to the challenge to Juror 275, Contra Costa Deputy District Attorney Melissa Smith remarked:

“I think this is going to be a clear and prime example to our appellate courts of Batson/Wheeler completely out of control. On this jury, ready to be sworn, [are] two African-American females. It’s approximately 25 percent African American of the wom[e]n who are sitting in the jury. This is a clear example of how defense attorneys exploit what truly is a needed opportunity and...make a joke out of jury selection.”

At a later hearing, she set forth her reasons, saying of the prospective juror:

“She was openly hostile, to say the least, when I was questioning her about Black Lives Matter. She disagreed that Black Lives Matter, there is a contingent within it [that] destroys property or...riots. That’s just absolutely not true or...she has chosen to close her eyes to it.

“She has strong opinions of law enforcement in the negative way. And she did not nod to treat law enforcement equally.”

(When Maier queried if the prospective jurors would evaluate the credibility of expert witnesses and law enforcement officers the same as other witnesses, Juror 275 did not nod in assent.)

Smith continued:

“She arrived late. She wanted absolutely nothing to do with this case. And with her arms crossed, was openly angry with me in my questioning, for whatever reason.”

(The appellants also complained on appeal of the exclusion of two other Blacks from the jury, but it was the challenge to Juror 275 that triggered the reversal.)

First Step

Addressing the first step in a Batson/Wheeler analysis—whether a discriminatory purpose appeared—Humes said that “the way the prosecutor questioned Juror 275 about Black Lives Matter was not neutral and suggested an antipathy toward the movement,” noting that “the prosecutor’s questions about Black Lives Matter rested on misperceptions or biases” by linking it to riots and property destruction.

The jurist commented:

“To the extent Juror 275 had a negative response to the prosecutor’s race-related questions, the response was insufficient to defeat a prima facie case of discrimination.  Any such response was in reaction to questioning that was, as the Attorney General recognizes, ‘inaccurate and inflammatory.’ ”

Second, Third Steps

Where a discriminatory purpose appears, Humes noted, the prosecutor must present “facially neutral” reasons for the challenges. He said that accepting the reasons she set forth “accepting at face value, we conclude that Juror 275’s supposed hostility and failure to respond accurately to the prosecutor’s questions were race-neutral reasons for striking her,” requiring advancement to the third step: determination if the explanation was persuasive.

Humes said the reasons put forth “do not hold up to scrutiny.”

He elaborated:

“As the record shows, and as the trial court explicitly ruled, Juror 275 did not deny that some people who participate in Black Lives Matter demonstrations destroy property. Of further concern, the prosecutor explained at one point that she asked such ‘questions about whether or not individuals could agree that maybe there is a bad portion of this particular movement that they’re in’ to ascertain whether there was a risk of ‘jury nullification.’ To the extent the prosecutor assumed Juror 275 posed a risk of jury nullification based solely on her perceived involvement in Black Lives Matter, the assumption reflected an illegitimate reason for a peremptory challenge.

“The prosecutor’s reason that Juror 275 had arrived late was also baseless. It was Juror 211 who arrived late, not Juror 275…. Here, the reason related to tardiness was unsupported in the record, was not an isolated mistake since the prosecutor offered at least one other reason that was unsupported in the record, and was more suggestive of discrimination because it stemmed from confusing one Black woman with another.”

The jurist said the record did not reveal a negative perception of law enforcement on the woman’s part.

Maier had sentenced the murder defendants—Sheldon Silas, Reginald Whitley, and Lamar Michaels—to wife in prison without possibility of parole. The judge sentenced Linda Chaney to 11 years in prison, but with three years credit for time served.

The case is People v. Silas, 2021 S.O.S. 5140.


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