The United States Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant a right to a fair and speedy trial. One way a trial is deemed fair is to have an impartial jury decide the fate of the case. To ensure a jury is impartial, both the defense and the prosecution will select the jury through the process of voir dire. As a Massachusetts defense attorney, it is often this process that can win or lose a case as it is imperative to get jurors who will not be biased against your client.
The process of voir dire usually consists of the jurors being asked questions about their age, employment and life experience. This is in hopes of uncovering any bias the juror may have and to find out whether he or she will be an impartial juror. If any deficiencies in the juror are apparent that lead the judge to believe the juror could not be impartial, the juror will be stricken for cause and not allowed to hear the trial. To further ensure a fair trial, each side is given five peremptory challenges which allows the lawyers to strike a juror for no reason and have them not sit for trial.
However, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment does not allow a lawyer to use one of these peremptory challenges based solely on race. This rule was decided in Batson v. Kentucky. The Supreme Court in that case stated once a lawyer displays a pattern of discrimination through his or her peremptory challenges, the other side can make an objection. This has become known as the Batson challenge. Once this objection is raised, the attorney will have to state a legitimate reason why they decided to strike the juror other than their race.
The recent case of Aleman v. Uribe took on the question of what type reasons can defeat a Batson challenge. This was a case where the defendants were on trial for the attempted murder of a police officer. The defendants who were Hispanic, raised a Batson challenge once the prosecution used 4 out of 5 peremptory challenges on Hispanic jurors. The challenge was allowed and the prosecution was forced to give a legitimate reason why peremptories were used on these jurors. For three of the jurors, a similar excuse was used stating the jurors did not respect authority and thought they may be biased. For the fourth, the prosecution used a specific quote that the juror used as to why he used a peremptory challenge. However, it turned out that the lawyer was mistaken and it was a different juror who made this “prissy” quote the lawyer cited.
The court ruled that this mistake was a legitimate excuse for using a peremptory and the Batson challenge was not allowed. The appeals court of the ninth circuit upheld this decision. They concluded that the attorney was sick and took poor notes and got confused as to who said what. They ruled it was because of this mistake, and not race that the peremptory challenge was made and therefore a legitimate excuse.
Peremptory challenges are important for both sides during a trial, but it is important that the court not allow use of peremptories as a basis for racial discrimination. This decision gives a lot of leeway to prosecutors now as they can simply say they made a mistake when striking a juror. The purpose of the Batson challenge is to ensure there was a legitimate reason for striking the juror. To defeat a Batson challenge, the reason does not have to be a strong convincing reason, but there has to at least be some rational basis. In Aleman v. Uribe, it seems like the prosecutor failed to name any legitimate reason, but the peremptory challenge was still allowed. By objecting to the improper use of peremptory challenges, Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers can ensure a fair trial for their clients.