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Court must revisit issue of prospective juror’s demeanor in Batson challenge

June 20, 2017

The Marion Superior Court must revisit the issue of whether a prospective juror’s body language made his dismissal appropriate after the Indiana Court of Appeals decided Tuesday it would be inappropriate to credit the state’s assertion without findings that the dismissal was not based on race.  

Indiana State Police Trooper Thomas Bennett was alerted to a situation in Marion County in which Eugen Roach hit a woman, then tried to flee the scene on a bicycle. A passerby blocked Roach’s path, and Bennett was able to arrest him.

Roach was charged with Class A misdemeanor resisting law enforcement, and during voir dire, the state posed the question, “What are some duties of law enforcement officers that you can think of?” When the state specifically addressed prospective juror Kevin Wilson, he said law enforcement is supposed to “do the right thing.” Later, when asked how he felt about a victim of an assault walking away from a police officer, Wilson said, “I (inaudible) press charges.”

Though those were the only verbal interactions with Wilson on the record, the state raised a peremptory challenge to strike Wilson. But counsel for Roach, who is black, told the court it was raising a Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S. Ct. 1712 (1986), challenge because Wilson was the only prospective juror who was a black man. Defense counsel said Wilson’s answers to the voir dire questions were no different than those of two white males who were also questioned.

The state, however, said Wilson was struck because of his body language, which was described as “disengaged.” Additionally, the state said it was concerned about Wilson’s indication that he would not stop if an officer asked him to. A white juror was struck for similar reasons, the state said.

The Marion Superior Court rejected the Batson challenge, finding the state did not strike Wilson with “a purposeful act of discrimination,” and Roach was found guilty as charged and sentenced to 365 days, with credit for 42 days and the remainder suspended to non-reporting probation. On appeal, Roach argued the trial court erred in denying his challenge.

Roach conceded that the state had offered two race-neutral reasons for striking Wilson, one of three elements necessary to consider in a Batson analysis. However, in a Tuesday opinion, COA Judge Michael Barnes said the record did not indicate Wilson said he would not stop for police – one of the two reasons for striking him –  but rather showed his response was inaudible.

But Barnes further wrote it is impossible for the appellate court to determine which reason – his indication he would not stop for police or his demeanor – the trial court used to deny Roach’s Batson challenge. As in the case of Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 474, 476-477, 128 S. Ct. 1203, 1207 (2008), Barnes said the court “cannot presume the trial court ‘credited the prosecutor’s assertion’ that Juror Wilson’s body language was inappropriate.”

Instead, the panel remanded the case with instructions to the trial court to make findings regarding the state’s demeanor-based reason for striking Wilson. If the judge cannot recall Wilson’s demeanor, then a new trial will be required.

The case is Eugene Roach v. State of Indiana, 49A04-1608-CR-1918.
 

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