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Circuit judges order court to take another look at Batson challenge

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Based on the record before them, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judges were unable to make an informed decision about the District Court’s decision to deny a defendant’s Batson challenge, so the judges sent the case back to the lower court.

In United States of America v. Anthony Rutledge, No.10-2734, Anthony Rutledge appealed the denial of his Batson challenge relating to the removal of the only two African-Americans from the jury pool. The prosecutor moved to strike Mr. Powell based on his response to a question that mentioned he thought that his views might be overruled if on the jury, that the others will think he was taking Rutledge’s side because they were both the same race. The prosecutor moved to strike Ms. Martin because she appeared agitated and frustrated during voir dire. Both potential jurors said there was no reason they couldn’t be a fair and impartial juror.

The District Court accepted the prosecutor’s reasons, which were not based on race, for striking the two but didn’t say why it was accepting the strike of Ms. Martin. Rutledge was convicted at trial, although the opinion does not state what he was charged with.

The third step of a Batson challenge is at issue here – the trial court deciding whether the opponent of the strike has proved purposeful discrimination. The 7th Circuit concluded that a remand is necessary for the District Court to make explicit findings for both jurors, citing United States v. McMath, 559 F.3d 657, 666 (7th Circ. 2009), and United States v. Taylor, 509 F.3d 839, 845 (7th Cir. 2007).

In regards to Martin, the trial court never credited the demeanor-based reason for the prosecutor’s peremptory strike, yet just repeated that the demeanor-based justification was a “nonracial-related reason,” wrote Judge Diane Wood. The District judge never evaluated whether her demeanor can credibly be said to have exhibited the basis for the strike attributed by the prosecutor.

In regards to Powell, the court’s statement that the prosecutor’s reason for striking him was “nonracially-related” did not do the job, continued the judge.

The federal appellate court also addressed a “potential worrisome element” in the resolution of the Powell strike – that the prosecutor in the case stated she is African-American as though to possibly convince the judge that her race-neutral explanations were credible.

“The abbreviated exchange on the record is troubling, though, because it can be read as a request by the government for the judge to assume that simply because the prosecutor is herself African-American, she would not engage in prohibited discrimination,” she wrote. “While a judge may consider a variety of factors in making a credibility determination, it would be wrong for a judge to assume that a prosecutor of the same race as a juror would not engage in discrimination against that juror simply because of their shared race.”

On remand, the District Court must make findings on the issue mentioned in the opinion and if the passage of time prevents the District Court from making such findings, or if it finds the prosecutor’s reasons aren’t credible, then it must vacate Rutledge’s conviction.

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