On February 27 the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit overturned Ricky Adkins’ capital conviction because prosecutors in the case had struck African-American jurors from the jury on the basis of their race, in violation of both the jurors’ and the defendant’s constitutional rights.
Using race as a reason to strike a potential juror is known among lawyers as a Batson violation after the case Batson v. Kentucky, which established a three-step review mechanism to address potential violations as they arise.
The 11th Circuit found that the prosecutors from the St. Clair County District Attorney’s Office excluded jurors on the basis of their race. To support its finding, the Court pointed to the following:
1) A pattern of striking black jurors. The prosecution used 9 of its 24 strikes to exclude 9 of 11 eligible African-American jurors, resulting in a strike rate of 82%.
2) The state struck juror Billy Morris, giving the reasons that he was single and he was familiar with the case. Morris was in fact married, and said so during voir dire. Furthermore, almost all jurors in the venire said they were familiar with the case, including 7 white jurors who ultimately served on the jury.
3) The prosecutors’ notes from trial show that they marked the race of every black veniremember (and only black veniremembers) on their jury list, which the Court notes as evidence of “strong discriminatory intent.”
4) The state offered reasons for striking black jurors other than juror Billy Morris that were also unsupported by the record, such as their age – the state cited black jurors’ advanced age as a reason to strike them even though white jurors of similar ages were not struck.
It is unusual for appellate courts not to show deference to lower courts that have found a defendant’s Batson claim wanting. The deference given to trial courts can be particularly problematic – for example, in the present case, the trial judge cited his personal experience with the prosecutor in unrelated matters to support his finding that there was no Batson violation. The Court acknowledged this, but explained that the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals failed to consider all the relevant circumstances that support the defendant’s claim that the state’s strikes were not race-neutral.
Read more about discriminatory jury selection practices as a form of misconduct here.