PA Superior Court Reverses Robbery Conviction After Finding Prosecutors Struck Jurors Due to Race

Prosecutors May Not Discriminate Against Jurors Based On Race

 Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Edwards. The Court reversed Edwards’ multiple convictions for gunpoint robbery after finding that the prosecution improperly struck jurors because they were African American. The Court concluded that the defendant successfully raised a challenge to the prosecution’s decisions during jury selection under the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Batson v. Kentucky.

Edwards was charged with multiple gunpoint robberies and related charges for allegedly robbing five men and shooting one of them. His co-defendant took a plea deal and testified against him in exchange for a reduced sentence, and the jury found Edwards guilty of all of the charges. After he was convicted, he was sentenced to 22 to 44 years of incarceration.

Edwards appealed, raising challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence as well as what is called a Batson challenge. The Superior Court rejected the challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, but it found that the trial court should have granted the defendant’s motion to seat excluded African American jurors pursuant to Batson. A Batson challenge involves challenging the prosecution’s use of race as a factor in picking and striking jurors during jury selection. In Batson, the United States Supreme Court held that the prosecution violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution by striking potential jurors solely on the basis of race.

Batson Challenges

In Pennsylvania, the analysis under Batson involves three stages. First, the defendant must make a prima facie showing that the circumstances give rise to an inference that the prosecutor struck one or more prospective jurors due to their race. Second, when the defense can make such a showing, the burden shifts to the prosecutor to provide race-neutral reasons for why the prosecutor struck the jurors at issue. Third, the trial court must then make the ultimate determination as to whether the defense has proven purposeful discrimination against jurors based on race.

Here, the defendant was able to show that the prosecution had discriminated against the jurors based on race for a number of reasons. First, the trial court used an incredibly suspect method of jury selection in which the list of jurors from which the parties made their peremptory challenges (strikes) included the race and gender of every juror. Second, in making its eight strikes, the prosecutor struck seven African Americans and an eigth non-caucasian potential juror, meaning that every single prosecution strike was of a minority. Third, the Superior Court found that the prosecution’s reasons for striking the jurors were not plausible. For example, the prosecutor stated that the Commonwealth struck jurors because they were joking with each other or because of they way they were sitting. Although those reasons would be facially race-neutral for purposes of the second part of the test, the Superior Court found that the reasons simply were not persuasive given the improper juror list and statistics involved.

Ultimately, during jury selection, the parties considered 30 potential jurors. Of those 30, 13 were African-American. The Commonwealth used seven of its eight strikes on African-Americans, and it used the eighth strike on a member of a different minority group. The Commonwealth did not strike a single white juror. Although statistics alone cannot prove a discriminatory intent on the part of the prosecutor, the Court was appalled by the fact that the prosecution used all eight strikes on minorities and then attempted to explain its decision to do so by stating that it did not like the way one of the potential African American jurors was leaning while sitting. This was particularly true in light of the fact that the trial court had actually instructed the jurors at the beginning of jury selection to sit back and relax because the process would take some time. Thus, the Court found that the Commonwealth’s reason was implausible. The Court reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

Pennsylvania and United States law prohibit the Government from excluding jurors based on race. In most cases, this rule is difficult to enforce because prosecutors will be able to protect themselves by striking some white jurors. It is also typically easy to come up with reasons for striking the jurors which are unrelated to race. However, where the Commonwealth seems to be engaging in a pattern of racial discrimination during jury selection, it is important to raise a Batson challenge in order to either have the jurors seated or preserve the issue for appeal. It is also important to remember that Pennsylvania law requires the party making a Batson challenge to include on the record the race of the stricken prospective jurors, the race of prospective jurors who were acceptable to the striking party but stricken by the party making the challenge, and the racial composition of the jury seated for trial.

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