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Drug conviction affirmed, but judge frets over possible race bias

April 18, 2019

A drug dealing conviction that followed the exclusion of the lone African-American from the pool of potential jurors was affirmed Thursday, but a judge expressed concern about how the defendant’s objection was handled in Fayette Circuit Court.

Ronald Richardson was convicted of Level 4 felony dealing in a narcotic drug after he was arrested following a high-speed chase that ended in Connersville. According to the record, Richardson and another woman pursued a car driven by a person who had purchased heroin from Richardson with apparently counterfeit money. Richardson subsequently was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on Thursday, finding that the state’s Batson challenge to the juror’s dismissal was not improper.

“Upon review, we conclude that the trial court properly determined that the State articulated a race-neutral reason for using a peremptory challenge to strike the potential juror from the jury,” Judge Cale Bradford wrote for the majority joined by Judge Elizabeth Tavitas in Ronald Richardson v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-2263.

“The potential juror indicated during voir dire that she had an interest in law-related books and television shows, and her enjoyment of these mediums may have left her with an inaccurate understanding of criminal proceedings. The potential juror’s interest in law-related books and television shows has been found to be a permissible ground for the State’s peremptory challenge,” Bradford wrote, citing United States v. Farhane, 634 F.3d 127, 157–58 (2d Cir. 2011) and United States v. Murillo, 288 F.3d 1126, 1136 (9th Cir. 2002). In the latter, a juror’s statement that “Judge Judy” was her favorite television show was found a permissible ground for the prosecutor’s peremptory challenge.

In Richardson’s case, the state objected to the potential African-American juror who said she liked “Law & Order” and had seen every episode of “Perry Mason.” But prosecutors also objected because they found her “to be aggressive and dominant, and … to have dominant body language.”

Judge Terry Crone concurred in part and in result, but wrote separately to “express (his) concerns regarding the Batson analysis… .”

“The prosecutor’s reasons for striking the potential juror are race neutral on their face. But the transcript flatly contradicts the prosecutor’s assertion that the potential juror was ‘aggressive and dominant in the conversation’ and ‘was always the first to speak out,’” Crone wrote. “She spoke only when spoken to and succinctly answered the questions asked of her. ... As for the potential juror’s allegedly ‘dominant body language,’ i.e., demeanor, the trial court made no specific finding to support the prosecutor’s assessment. … (M)aking such findings is clearly the better practice in light of an appellate court’s inability to judge a potential juror’s demeanor, and I urge the Indiana Supreme Court to require such findings in Indiana trial courts to promote both fairness and judicial economy.”

“… (A)bsent any existing requirement for trial courts to make findings regarding a potential juror’s demeanor or for prosecutors to offer some justification for striking a potential juror based on his or her media preferences, I must reluctantly defer to the trial court, who was uniquely situated to assess the potential juror’s allegedly ‘dominant body language’ and determine the credibility of the prosecutor’s objection to her choice of books and television shows,” Crone wrote. “My reluctance is heightened by the lack of evidence supporting the prosecutor’s assertion that the potential juror was ‘aggressive and dominant in the conversation,’ but in the end I must conclude that Richardson has failed to establish that the trial court clearly erred in denying his Batson challenge.”

The panel also agreed that Richardson had failed to show that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting challenged evidence; that he was subjected to double jeopardy, or; that the evidence is insufficient to sustain his conviction.

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