Black juror strike upheld despite lack of demeanor finding

A burglary conviction will stand after the Indiana Court of Appeals found race-neutral reasons to strike a black juror, though the appellate court did opine on best practices to avoid confusion in future Batson challenges.

In Antonio R. Whitfield v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-2428, Antonio Whitfield was found in the rafters of a Marion County home that was under construction after a neighbor heard a loud noise and called police. When officers arrived, they discovered damage to the rear door, boxes and a crowbar. 

Whitfield was charged with Level 5 felony burglary and Class B misdemeanor criminal mischief, and during jury selection, only one African-American, L.M., was empaneled for questioning. In her questionnaire, L.M. wrote that she was “[n]ot sure” if she could be fair and impartial and had “a low expectation” of justice for minorities. Similarly during voir dire, L.M. said she believed minorities were not always treated fairly by the criminal justice system.

L.M. also asked questions of the defense attorney about the meaning of reasonable doubt. She eventually acquiesced that if a defendant is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, she would find him guilty.

The state then moved to peremptorily strike L.M., prompting Whitfield to raise a Batson claim. The Marion Superior Court allowed the strike after the state pointed to L.M.’s statements regarding injustice against minorities, her confusion surrounding the meaning of reasonable doubt and a “vibe” indicating she did not want to be in court and was more engaged with the defense attorney than with the prosecutor.

The final jury, which did include a member of a minority group, then found Whitfield guilty as charged, and he pleaded guilty to being a habitual offender. The criminal mischief conviction was vacated on double jeopardy grounds, and Whitfield received a six-year sentence.

On appeal, Whitfield argued the trial court erred in determining the state did not strike L.M. solely because of her race. He noted the trial court failed to make a specific finding about L.M.’s demeanor, which meant the Court of Appeals “cannot conclude that the State’s interpretation of L.M.’s demeanor was accurate.”

But “(h)ere, in addition to the demeanor-based reasons, the State provided other reasons for the strike,” Judge Terry Crone wrote in a Wednesday opinion affirming the trial court. “The State explained that L.M. did not indicate on her questionnaire that she could be fair and impartial, she had family members who had been arrested for or charged with a crime, and based on her statements during voir dire, she seemed unclear on her ability to be fair and impartial and whether she could find guilt even if the elements of the crime were proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Thus, the appellate panel determined the trial court had a “sound basis” for rejecting the Batson challenge, even without a specific finding on demeanor. 

Even so, “making such findings is clearly the better practice,” Crone added. “In cases where the State seeks to strike a potential juror based on the juror’s demeanor and the defense disputes the state’s description of the juror’s demeanor, we encourage the trial court to make factual findings regarding its observations of the juror’s demeanor when ruling on a Batson challenge.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.