Purposefully Struck

By: Liana Stinson

Batson, an African American, was indicted in the state of Kentucky on charges of “second-degree burglary and receipt of stolen goods.” Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 82 (1986). The case proceeded to trial where the judge conducted voir dire excusing potential jurors for cause. Id. at 82. Then, the judge allowed both the defense and state to exercise their peremptory challenges. Id. at 82-83.

Of all the potential jurors, only four were African American. Id. at 83. The state used its peremptory challenges to get all four of those African American jurors stuck. Id. The jury was then only composed of white persons. Id. Before the newly-elected jury was sworn in, the defense moved to discharge the jury because the removal of all of those of African American descent violated Batson’s “Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to a jury drawn from a cross section of the community, and under the Fourteenth Amendment to equal protection of the laws.” Id. The judge denied this motion reasoning that both the defense and state can utilize their peremptory challenges to “strike anybody they want to.” Id. As to the question of a jury drawn from a cross section of the community, the judge reasoned that that only applies to selection of the potential jurors themselves not selection of the actual jury. Id.

Batson was convicted on both counts, the burglary and the receipt of stolen goods. Id. Then on appeal, Batson urged that the state’s use of peremptory challenges was wrongful and displayed a “pattern” of discriminatory challenges. Id. at 83-84. The Supreme Court of Kentucky then affirmed the trial’s court’s ruling and reliance on Swain which held that the defendant “alleging lack of a fair cross section must demonstrate systematic exclusion of a group of jurors from the venire.” Id. at 84. Batson then appealed to the United States Supreme Court which granted certiorari. Id.

The Court first looked at the underlying principle of Swain which reasoned that a “State’s purposeful or deliberate denial to [African Americans] on account of race of participation as jurors in the administration of justice violates the Equal Protection Clause.” Id. However, the holding in Swain makes it a high burden for defendants to meet to prove “systematic exclusion.” That is why the Court reversed the reliance on Swain but affirmed the principle behind it. Id.

Since 1880, the Court has held that when members of a defendant’s particular race are purposefully excluded from a jury, the defendant is denied equal protection of the laws. Id. at 85. That decision was the first of many in the Court’s efforts to abolish discrimination in the selection of the jury. Id. In that, the Court reasoned that the Fourteenth Amendment was created to end governmental discrimination on the basis of race. Id. While a defendant does not have the right to a jury composed of all persons of his race, a defendant does have the right to a jury selected pursuant to nondiscriminatory criteria. Id. at 85-86.

“The equal Protection Clause guarantees the defendant that the State will not exclude member of his race form the jury venire on account of race, or on the false assumption that members of his race as a group are not qualified to serve as jurors.” Id. at 86.

Denying a defendant’s right to equal protection of the laws denies him of the protection that affording defendant’s a trial by jury is mean to protect. Id. The Court reasoned in Strauder that “[t]he very idea of a trial by jury is a body composed of the peers or equals of the person whose rights it is selected or summoned to determine; that is, of his neighbors, fellows, associates, persons having the same legal status in society as that which he holds.” Id. This provides a sense of security to defendants that the state cannot have use this power against them to make the trial unfair.

The Court ruled in this case that the defendant must first show that he is a member of a racial group that is capable of being singled out for differential treatment. Id. at 94. Then, the defendant can make a prima facie case by showing that members of his race have not been summoned for jury duty over a period of time which can show systematic discrimination. Id. The defendant can also establish a prima facie case by showing evidence of continued, unexplained absence of members of his race from the jury. Id. at 95.

The case of Batson v. Kentucky took place in 1986. The Court has been repeatedly striking down cases exactly like Batson since 1880. But my question is: how can this still be happening more than 100 years later? And when will it end?

Slavery was abolished in 1865. The first case to come before the Supreme Court of the United States where African American jurors were purposefully eliminated from the jury pool in 1880. The Court has had to consistently from then on strike down courts’ decisions in each state in which the state upheld the discrimination. In some areas of the nation in which are rural and uninhabited, it may be more difficult to obtain a fair jury selection pool from randomly selecting individuals from the area. However, peremptory challenges do not need a reason. So if there is one member of a protected class selected from a jury pool from a rural area, how can it be known that it is purposeful discrimination? How can it be known if it is not purposeful discrimination?

The fact that excluding jurors based on their race is still prevalent today amazes me. How can we not have moved past eliminating someone solely based on the color of their skin?