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Supreme Court rules judges don’t need to justify juror dismissals

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The Arizona Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously ruled that trial judges in the state do not have to give explicit evidence for demeanor-based jury strikes unless the explanation offered by the prosecutor is deemed to be implausible.  

The decision struck down a ruling by the state Court of Appeals, which concluded that Judge Monica Garfinkel of Maricopa County Superior Court needed to provide explicit findings to justify the striking of two black jurors in a criminal case in which the defendant was Black.  

Keyaira Porter, a Maricopa County woman charged with aggravated assault of a police officer and resisting arrest, alleged that the jurors were removed peremptorily (without explanation) on the basis of race. 

“We disagree,” Justice John Lopez wrote on behalf of the Supreme Court. “We also express our confidence that trial judges – who are in a better position to discern the intent and demeanor of prosecutors and jurors – are uniquely situated to determine whether peremptory challenges are being used to discriminate against minority jurors.” 

Under a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that governs peremptory challenges, Batson v. Kentucky, the defendant must first issue the challenge, which requires a pattern of strikes against minority jurors. Secondly, the prosecutor must give their reasoning for striking the jurors in question. After the prosecutor gives their reasoning, the judge must make a determination on whether the reasons given were discriminatory or not. 

The Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of Porter and called for further proceedings regarding her challenge, relied on a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Snyder v. Louisiana, a capital case in which a black defendant was tried by an all-white jury. The state Supreme Court rejected this argument, stating that Snyder did not apply to situations in which the prosecutor provided two race-neutral reasons for striking a minority juror.  

“Here, the court of appeals interpreted Snyder to hold that when a trial court is presented with two explanations for a strike, and one is based on a prospective juror’s demeanor, an appellate court may not presume that the trial court credited the demeanor-based explanation simply because it denied the Batson challenge,” Lopez wrote. “The court of appeals extended Snyder beyond its jurisprudential reach.” 

Lopez further explained that in Arizona, trial courts’ rulings on Batson challenges are not reversed unless the judgement is “clearly erroneous.” The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s assessment that the prosecutor had sound, non-discriminatory reasons for striking both jurors, thus rendering the Batson challenge invalid. One juror was stricken because one of their family members had been convicted on a charge similar to the one Porter was facing, while the second juror was dismissed due to having “a stronger personality or be[ing] more willing to acquit a defendant.” 

While the Supreme Court found that trial judges were not required to provide explicit findings for juror dismissals, it recommended that they do so anyway.  

“Although express findings are not required, we encourage trial courts to make them as they will bolster their rulings and facilitate review on appeal,” Lopez wrote. 

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this article. 

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