Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Conviction Reversed for Batson Violation; Prosecutor's Proffered Race-Neutral Reason for Strike of Two Black Jurors Was Pretextual

United States v. Williamson, No. 07-10602 (5th Cir. June 24, 2008) (King, Higginbotham, Southwick)

During the voir dire portion of jury selection at Williamson's trial for possession of crack with intent to distribute, the court asked the venire if they, or any of their family members or close friends, had ever been involved in a criminal matter or with drugs. Thirteen veniremembers, two of whom were black, answered that they had relatives, friends, or acquaintances who were drug users or who had faced drug charges. A couple of the non-black veniremembers even admitted to teenage marijuana use.

The court then allowed the parties to question the venire directly. "The Government asked questions only of the black venire members, focusing on their 'associations' with persons who had drug involvement. The defense asked a number of venire members follow-up questions, but none of those questions touched on drug issues."

The Government exercised peremptory challenges agains the two black veniremembers. The defense objected, on Batson grounds. In response, the Government explained that it struck the two black veniremembers because they appeared to condone drug use by continuing to associate with friends and relatives who are drug users. The Government even claimed that "no other juror on the panel stated that they knew and were associating with individuals that [use drugs]." The court responded that "[m]aybe that’s because you didn’t give them an opportunity to because you only asked those questions of the two black jurors[,]" and the defense pointed out the inaccuracy of the prosecutor's claim. Nevertheless, the court overruled the objection. The jury later found Williamson guilty.

Williamson pressed his Batson challenge on appeal, and this time the court agreed with him. The court concluded that the Government's proffered reason for the strikes was facially race-neutral, but that the reason was pretextual as to at least one of the black veniremembers. It found that the Government exaggerated the extent and nature of that venireman's association with drug users, and failed to pose additional questions to non-black veniremembers whose relationship to drug users should have prompted even greater concern for the Government given its proffered reason for the strikes. And even though the other black veniremember had a closer association with a drug user than the other struck member, the fact that the Government clearly singled out the two of them for additional questioning on the matter further belied the claimed reasons for the strikes. Given these circumstances, "[t]he prosecution’s proffer of this pretextual explanation naturally gives rise to an inference of discriminatory intent." (quotes & cite ditched). Thus, the district court clearly erred in overruling the defense objection to at least one of the two strikes, requiring reversal of Williamson's conviction.



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