Category Archives: Race & Law

Reconsider Long Prison Sentences?

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Excellent article in Inside Sources by director of Strategic Initiatives at The Sentencing Project argues our society must reconsider long prison sentences.

Gotsch writes that a measure of rationality has come to federal sentencing after President Trump signed the First Step Act. The legislation has led to almost 1,700 people receiving sentence reductions, most of whom have been freed. Ninety-one percent are African American. Douglas and dozens of others sentenced to die in prison are among the beneficiaries.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that the resentencing provisions of the First Step Act reduced the average sentence of 20 years by an average of six years for those who qualified.

“The reductions, while modest, are profound for the people and families ensnared by long prison terms, and who have been generally left out of criminal justice reforms until now,” writes Gotsch.

“Congress should take its next step to address a broader cohort of incarcerated people with lengthy sentences.”

Gotsch’s arguments hinge on the fact that lengthy prison sentences seem inappropriate for prison populations that essentially “age out” of crime. Half of the people in federal prisons are serving sentences longer than 10 years. Almost 20 percent of the population is more than 50 years old.

“Criminal justice research has long confirmed that people generally age out of crime, so long sentences provide diminishing returns for public safety,” says Gotsch. “Tax dollars that could be used to invest in youth, improve schools, expand drug treatment and medical and mental health care, are instead invested in prisons to incarcerate a growing elder population despite their limited likelihood of recidivism. Policy should reflect the research.”

The Second Look Act, newly introduced sentencing reform legislation from Senator Cory Booker and Representative Karen Bass, follows the lead of experts on crime and punishment and offers a transformational approach. The bill seeks to curb long sentences by offering a sentencing review by a federal judge to people with sentences longer than 10 years. Individuals who have served at least 10 years must show they are rehabilitated and are not a threat to public safety to qualify for a sentence reduction. People who are 50 or older would have a presumption of release because of their substantially lower recidivism rates.

“For the bipartisan lawmakers in Washington, and the 2020 presidential candidates who have pledged to address the problems in the criminal justice system, a broader approach to challenge mass incarceration and promote public safety is long overdue,” says Gotsch.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges which could include a prison sentence. It’s very important to hire an experienced, competent competent attorney who can either prepare a strong case for jury trial or navigate a plea deal which avoids prison.

Are Long Prison Sentences Necessary?

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“For decades, while we made it increasingly difficult to obtain release, we have sent people to prison for longer and longer. We became reliant on extreme sentences, including mandatory minimums, “three-strike” laws, and so-called truth-in-sentencing requirements that limit opportunities for people to earn time off their sentences for good behavior. As a result, the United States laps the world in the number of people it incarcerates, with 2.2 million people behind bars, representing a 500 percent increase over the past four decades, with 1 in 9 people in prison serving a life sentence.”

Moreover, the authors argue that legislation is needed at the federal level and in every state to allow everyone after a certain period in prison the opportunity to seek sentence reductions. Sentence review legislation recognizes that as we have increased the length of prison sentences and limited the ability to obtain release, our prisons have become overwhelmed with people whose current conduct proves further incarceration is not in the public interest.

LONG PRISON SENTENCES DO NOT REDUCE CRIME.

“We increased sentence lengths and made it more difficult for people to be released because we were told it was needed for public safety,” said the authors. “But sending people to prison for long periods does not reduce crime.”

In fact, longer sentences, if anything, create crimeDavid Roodman, a senior adviser for Open Philanthropy, reviewed numerous studies on the impact of incarceration and concluded that “in the aftermath of a prison sentence, especially a long one, someone is made more likely to commit a crime than he would have been otherwise.”

Additionally, the authors say that not only are lengthy prison sentences ineffective at reducing crime, but they have devastated low-income and minority communities. As the Vera Institute aptly put it: “We have lost generations of young men and women, particularly young men of color, to long and brutal prison terms.” While black people are just 13-percent of the country’s population, they account for 40 percent of the people we incarcerate.

If the ineffectiveness of long prison terms or the impact on poor communities of color is not reason enough to revisit lengthy prison sentences, the financial drain of long prison terms is staggering. For example, U.S. prisons spend $16 billion per year on elder care alone. Billions of dollars are diverted to prisons to care for the elderly who would pose no real risk if released when that money could be going to our schools, hospitals, and communities.

Given this reality, the authors say, we need to pursue every option that would safely reduce our prison population. One proposal by the American Law Institute recommends reviewing all sentences after a person has served 15 years in prison. Another example is the bill Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced that would provide sentence review for anyone who has served more than 10 years in prison or who is over 50 years old. Notably, neither proposal is restricted by the type of offense, which is critical, because to combat mass incarceration, to echo the Prison Policy Initiative, reform has “to go further than the ‘low hanging fruit’ of nonviolent drug offenses.”

“Measures that promote sentence review would not automatically release anyone,” say the authors. “Instead, people would be given a chance to show a court that they are no longer a danger to public safety. A judge—after weighing all relevant circumstances, including hearing from any victims and their families—would then decide whether a person should be released.”

And numerous studies have shown that decreasing sentences does not increase crime. A recent Brennan Center for Justice report documented 34 states that reduced both their prison population and their crime rates, the Sentencing Project concluded that unduly long prison terms are counterproductive for public safety, and the Justice Policy Institute found little to no correlation between time spent in prison and recidivism rates.

My opinion? Some crimes need punishment. However, we have forgotten that our justice system is supposed to rehabilitate people, not just punish them. Our policies should reflect the ability of people to change over the course of years—or decades—of incarceration.

Federal Government Seeks Death Penalty

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Reporter of the New York Times wrote a compelling article stating the federal government will resume executions of death row inmates after a nearly two-decade hiatus, countering a broad national shift away from the death penalty as public support for capital punishment has dwindled.

Attorney General William P. Barr announced that five men convicted of murdering children will be executed in December and January at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, and additional executions will be scheduled later. The announcement reversed what had been essentially a moratorium on the federal death penalty since 2003.

Prosecutors still seek the death penalty in some federal cases, including for Dylann S. Roof, the avowed white supremacist who gunned down nine African-American churchgoers in 2015, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. Both were convicted and sentenced to death.

President Trump has long supported the death penalty, declaring last year that drug dealers should be executed. By applying it to inmates convicted of murdering children, he may make a more politically powerful argument for it amid diminishing public support.

But public attitudes toward the death penalty have changed in the ensuing decades. Support for it went from nearly 80 percent in 1996 to a two-decade low three years ago, when just under half of Americans polled backed it for people convicted of murder, according to the Pew Research Center. Public backing of capital punishment ticked back up to 54 percent last year, the center found.

Capital punishment fell out of favor as researchers questioned whether it deterred people from committing heinous crimes and as more defense lawyers proved that their clients had been wrongfully convicted. Fewer than two dozen executions have occurred annually in the United States in recent years, down from a high of 98 in 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Civil rights advocates have also noted the racial disparity among inmates on death row and argued that capital punishment was disproportionately applied to black men.

“The death penalty is plagued by racial bias and geographic bias,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Junk science has played an outsized role in who gets the death penalty and who does not,” she added, pointing to instances of experts overstating hair or fingerprint evidence in court testimony.

SUPREME COURT WEIGHS IN

Benner reports that the U.S. Supreme Court term that ended last month featured several bitter clashes over whether inmates can challenge the use of the chemicals used in lethal injections on the grounds that they can cause intense pain.

In 2015, the Supreme Court examined whether lethal injection was unconstitutionally cruel punishment. The justices upheld the use of lethal injection, but in a dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer urged the Supreme Court to take a fresh look at the constitutionality of the death penalty.

He said there was evidence that innocent people had been executed, that death row exonerations were frequent, that death sentences were imposed arbitrarily and that the capital justice system was warped by racial discrimination and politics.

But only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Justice Breyer’s dissent, and there have been no signs that a majority of the justices have qualms about the constitutionality of the death penalty. To the contrary, the court’s five more conservative members have expressed frustration with what they say is litigation gamesmanship used by opponents of capital punishment to put off executions.

More broadly, they have noted that the punishment is contemplated in the Fifth and 14th Amendments, which call for grand juries in federal cases involving “a capital or other infamous crime” and say that no person may be deprived “of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”

Overcoming Implicit Bias

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In State v. Berhe, the WA Supreme Court held that a trial court failed to adequately oversee allegations of racism and implicit bias among jurors deliberating in a Shoreline man’s first degree murder and first degree assault trial in 2016.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In 2016, a King County jury convicted Tomas Berhe, then 31, of murder and assault in a shooting in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. Mr. Behre is African-American. He was convicted of killing 21-year-old Everett Williams, whom Berhe thought had shot his cousin. A second man who was in the Eastlake alley with Williams was also shot.

After the trial concluded with a guilty verdict in early 2016, the sixth juror contacted both defense attorneys and the court with concern, according to the opinion. Weeks later, Berhe asked the judge for a new trial and requested an evidentiary hearing to investigate the allegations of racial bias, among other concerns.

In a written declaration presented by the defense, the sixth juror said she was the only African American on the jury in the trial of an African American defendant and described being the last holdout among four jurors who had initially leaned against conviction.

By the trial’s end, the sixth juror said she only agreed to vote for a guilty verdict because she felt “emotionally and mentally exhausted from the personal and implicit race-based derision from other jurors,” the opinion quotes the declaration as saying.

The juror said others had mocked her as stupid and illogical when she suggested that Berhe could have taken the murder weapon from someone else. She described two jurors as taunting her, saying that she would “let him walk,” and said she felt mocked after several jurors interpreted something she’d said as commentary on police misconduct toward African Americans.

Responding to the defense’s declaration, prosecutors sent questions to several jurors asking if they themselves, or another juror, had done anything to the sixth juror that was motivated by racial bias during deliberations. Results were not conclusive, and the Superior Court judge found insufficient evidence of juror misconduct and denied a request for a new trial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the WA Supreme Court described how racial bias harms trial verdicts:

“Unlike isolated incidents of juror misbehavior, racial bias is a common and pervasive evil that causes systemic harm to the administration of justice. Also unlike other types of juror misconduct, racial bias is uniquely difficult to identify.”

Second, the Court reasoned that Courts must carefully oversee any inquiry into whether explicit or implicit racial bias influenced a jury verdict.

“Rather than permitting the parties alone to investigate allegations of racial bias, once a claim of racial bias is raised, inquiries into the influence of that racial bias on a jury’s verdict must be conducted under the court’s supervision and on the record,” said the Court. “Therefore, as soon as any party becomes aware that there are sufficient facts to support allegations that racial bias was a factor in the verdict, the court and opposing counsel must be notified.”

Third, the Court reasoned that the unique challenge of assessing implicit racial bias requires a searching inquiry before a court can decide whether an evidentiary hearing is needed. “Implicit racial bias is a unique problem that requires tailored solutions,” said the Court. “Therefore, when it is alleged that racial bias was a factor in the verdict, the trial court must oversee and conduct a thorough investigation that is tailored to the specific allegations presented before deciding whether to hold an evidentiary hearing and before ruling on a defendant’s motion for a new trial,” said the Court.

The Court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to exercise adequate oversight over the investigations into juror 6’s allegations of racial bias and by failing to conduct a sufficient inquiry before denying Berhe’s motion for a new trial without an evidentiaiy hearing. “We therefore vacate the trial court’s order denying Berhe’s motion for a new trial and remand for further proceedings.”

My opinion? Excellent decision. Groundbreaking, even. In what could be a first-of-its-kind rule nationwide, the judges’ opinion establishes procedures for trial court judges to investigate implicit racial bias reported during jury deliberations.

This isn’t the first time our Supreme Court has openly exercised judicial activism. In April, the state Supreme Court published General Rule 37, a rule for courts saying that challenges during jury selection based on implicit, institutional and unconscious race and ethnic biases should be rejected, she noted. Now, similar protection from bias extends into the jury room.

Excellent decision.

Terry Stop Held Unlawful

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In United States v. Brown, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an anonymous tip that a person saw a black male with a gun does not provide reasonable suspicion to make a Terry stop in Washington, where possession of a firearm is presumptively lawful.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Brown, who is a black man, had the misfortune of deciding to avoid contact with the police. Following an anonymous tip that a black man was carrying a gun—which is not a criminal offense in Washington State—police spotted Brown, who was on foot, activated their lights, and pursued him by car, going the wrong direction down a one-way street. Before flashing their lights, the officers did not order or otherwise signal Brown to stop. Brown reacted by running for about a block before the officers stopped him at gunpoint.

Police pursued Brown for one block before stopping him and ordering him to the ground at gunpoint. The officers placed Brown in handcuffs and found a firearm in his waistband. A further search revealed drugs, cash, and other items.

Police seized Mr. Brown even though there was no reliable tip, no reported criminal activity, no threat of harm, no suggestion that the area was known for high crime or narcotics, no command to stop, and no requirement to even speak with the police.

Brown moved to suppress the evidence from the searches, arguing that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to stop him under Terry v. Ohio. The district court disagreed and denied the motion.

ISSUE

Whether police officers were justified in briefly stopping and detaining Mr. Brown.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that an an officer may only conduct a brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.  Illinois v. Wardlow.

“Here, the lack of facts indicating criminal activity or a known high crime area drives our conclusion. The Metro officers who stopped Brown took an anonymous tip that a young, black man “had a gun”—which is presumptively lawful in Washington—and jumped to an unreasonable conclusion that Brown’s later flight indicated criminal activity. At best, the officers had nothing more than an unsupported hunch of wrongdoing.”

With that, the court reasoned that the circumstances of this case fails to satisfy the standard established by Terry and Wardlow. “The combination of almost no suspicion from the tip and Brown’s flight does not equal reasonable suspicion.”

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that in Washington State, it is lawful to carry a gun. Although carrying a concealed pistol without a license is a misdemeanor offense in Washington,  the failure to carry the license is simply a civil infraction.

Additionally, the Court of Appeals downplayed Brown running from police. “No one disputes that once the Metro officer activated his patrol car lights, Brown fled,” said the Court. “But the Supreme Court has never endorsed a per se rule that flight establishes reasonable suspicion. Instead, the Court has treated flight as just one factor in the reasonable suspicion analysis, if an admittedly significant one. “Notably, the officers did not communicate with Brown, use their speaker to talk with him, or tell him to stop before they flashed their lights and then detained him,” said the Court. “Under these circumstances, Brown had no obligation to stop and speak to an officer.”

My opinion? Good decision. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime under circumstances where the police may have conducted an unlawful search or seizure. Hiring competent defense is the first and best step toward gaining justice.

Seattle Police Accountability Report: More Use of Force Against African Americans

Excellent article by of the Seattle Times reports that Seattle police are using force at low levels but still can’t fully explain why it is used against African Americans at disproportionately higher rates, according to the department’s annual report submitted to the federal judge overseeing court-ordered reforms.

The Seattle Police Department last week filed its 2019 Use of Force report, which shows that the use of force by officers remained “extraordinarily low” last year.

Officers reported using force at a rate of less than one quarter of 1 percent out of the nearly 400,000 incidents to which they responded, the report said. That’s in line with the rate reported a year earlier.

According to Miletich, the report is part of a series to show whether federally-mandated police reforms are being sustained, with an ultimate goal of terminating a court-ordered agreement by 2020. The updates are being provided to U.S. District Judge James Robart, who last year found the city in full compliance with the main terms of a 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department.

Judge Robart’s ruling triggered a two-year period in which the city must demonstrate that it is maintaining reforms to address allegations of excessive force and issues of biased policing. The city took the lead role in carrying out a self-analysis, although the Justice Department and the court’s monitor, Merrick Bobb, scrutinize the progress.

The police department’s use-of-force reports follow Bobb’s key finding in April 2017 that the department had made a dramatic turnaround. He concluded that overall use of force was down, and that when officers used it, it was largely handled in a reasonable way consistent with department policies.

Still, as in the 2018 report, the new figures show a disparity in the use of force against African Americans. Black males represented 32 percent of cases involving males, up from 25 percent a year earlier. Cases involving black females surged to represent 22 percent of incidents where force was used against females, compared with 5 percent in 2017. African Americans make up about 7 percent of Seattle’s population.

Racial disparity is a “significant ongoing concern” requiring further discussion and analysis within the limited role of law enforcement, the report said.

Yet current sociological and criminal-justice research has not found proven reliable methodology for accounting for all the “multitude of recognized factors” that may combine to result in the disparity, including education, socioeconomic status and family structure, the report said.

“In other words, while numbers can identify a disparity, they cannot explain the disparity,” the report said. At any rate, the police department said it would continue to consult academic experts to learn more, including the possible effects of implicit bias.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member had a negative experience which police which turned inappropriately violent. Although police officers have difficult jobs, police misconduct still exists.

Pot Convictions Pardoned

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People seeking a pardon can apply by filling out a simple petition form on the governor’s office’s website.

The new pardon process will allow applicants to skip the usual step of making a request to the state’s Clemency and Pardons Board, which typically reviews requests and makes recommendations to the governor, said Tip Wonhoff, the governor’s deputy general counsel.

For people granted pardons, the governor’s office will ask the State Patrol to remove those convictions from the criminal-history reports that are available to the public, though the records will remain available to law enforcement, according to a summary of the pardon plan provided by the governor’s office. Records also will remain in court files unless petitioners successfully petition to have them vacated by the court that imposed the sentence.

The pardon announcement comes amid Inslee’s well-publicized explorations of a 2020 presidential run. While relatively unknown in the field of potential Democratic contenders, Inslee has formed a federal political-action committee and garnered attention for making climate change the centerpiece of his potential national campaign.

Inslee’s advisers said he supports more sweeping legislation that would allow anyone with a misdemeanor adult marijuana-possession conviction to have it removed from their records.

A bill proposed in 2017 by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, would require sentencing courts to grant any person’s request to vacate such convictions. The proposal received a hearing but did not advance in the Legislature.

The city of Seattle has taken action to expunge old marijuana records. After a request by City Attorney Pete Holmes, Seattle Municipal Court judges last year moved to vacate convictions and dismiss charges for as many as 542 people prosecuted for marijuana possession between 1996 and 2010, when Holmes’ office ceased prosecuting marijuana possession.

My opinion? Kudos for Governor Inslee for making a bold step in the right direction. Washington has moved beyond prosecuting people for minor marijuana offenses. It seems right to vacate criminal convictions for these same offenses.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face drug charges. Being convicted can limit career, housing and travel opportunities. Hiring qualified counsel is the first step toward gaining justice.

Right to Impartial Jury

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In State v. Phillips, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not violate an African-American defendant’s right to an impartial jury by dismissing a prospective juror despite the juror’s feelings that African American men are more prone to violence.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On July 1, 2016, Mr. Phillips came home late after his wife Ms. Philips was in bed asleep with their infant daughter. Ms. Philips told Mr. Phillips to leave her alone. Their daughter called 911 and reported that Mr. Phillips was hitting Ms. Philips. When Mr. Phillips saw his daughter was calling the police, he knocked the phone from her hands.

King County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the 911 call and found the house in chaos. Mr. Phillips was arrested and booked into jail. From jail, Mr. Phillips repeatedly called Mrs. Philips demanding that she get him out and expressing his anger at the police having been called. Mr. Phillips was charged with Assault in the Second Degree Domestic Violence (DV) and Tampering With a Witness.

Jury Selection

During jury selection, the trial judge asked if any of the jurors had personal experience
with domestic violence. Juror 10 was among the members who raised their hand. When asked to elaborate, he explained that his sister and his wife’s sister-in-law were both involved in abusive relationships with intimate partners.

Juror #10 also revealed an experience in college after an intramural basketball game when an African American player on the opposing team assaulted him. Juror 10 explained, “nothing came of it, but it left an emotional imprint.” He further elaborated,

“And this is an emotional truth. I don’t live this way; I don’t believe this; but I’m also aware that feelings happen in reality that black men are more prone to violence . . . It was also notable that afterwards when, you know, the gym supervisor was called and there was just a huddle on the spot, and then, of course there was denial and, you know, dismissiveness of it. And that’s another narrative; that those who are violent try to get out of it; so those are two personal emotions imprints that are there, as well.”

From these comments, both the State Prosecutor and Mr. Philips’ defense attorney asked numerous questions to Juror #10. Ultimately, neither the State nor defense counsel exercised a peremptory challenge or moved to strike Juror #10 for cause. Later, Juror #10 served on the jury.

Ultimately, the jury found Phillips guilty of second degree assault and found the State prove aggravating circumstances. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the witness tampering charge, and it was dismissed. Mr. Philips was sentenced to 120 months.

He appealed. One of the issues was whether Juror #10 should have been struck from serving on the jury panel.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Philips’ conviction.

The Court started by giving a substantial amount of background on the issue of jury selection. It said the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, and article 1, section 22, of the Washington Constitution, guarantee a criminal defendant the right to trial by an impartial jury.

Furthermore, in order to ensure this constitutional right, the trial court will excuse a juror for cause if the juror’s views would prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath. The presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless; the error requires a new trial without a showing of prejudice.

Also, at trial, either party has a statutory right to challenge a prospective juror for cause. “Actual bias is a ground for challenging a juror for cause,” said the Court of Appeals. “Actual bias occurs when there is the existence of a state of mind on the part of the juror in reference to the action, or to either party, which satisfies the court that the challenged person cannot try the issue impartially and without prejudice to the substantial rights of the party challenging.”

Furthermore, Under State v. Irby, RCW 2.36.110 and CrR 6.4 it is the judge’s duty to excuse potential jurors from  jury service if they have manifested unfitness as a juror by reason of bias, prejudice, indifference, inattention or any physical or mental defect. These court precedents, statutes and court rules give a trial judge an independent obligation to excuse a juror, regardless of inaction by counsel or the defendant.

However, the Court of Appeals ultimately reasoned that the present case was distinguishable from Irby.

Also, the Court of Appeals reasoned that defense counsel was alert to the possibility of biased jurors.

“Defense counsel actively questioned Juror #10, including questioning whether, despite juror 10’s concerns, the juror would follow the court’s instructions and base his decision on the evidence presented,” reasoned the court of Appeals. “As a result, defense counsel did not challenge Juror #10. This suggests that defense counsel observed something during voir dire that led counsel to believe Juror #10 could be fair.”

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals said it was also significant that Phillips used his peremptory challenges to strike several jurors, but had one peremptory challenge remaining when he accepted the jury, including Juror #10. “Again, this suggests that defense counsel either wanted juror 10 on the jury, or did not want one or both the next potential jurors on the panel,” said the Court of Appeals.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in failing to excuse Juror #10 for cause and upheld Mr. Philips’ conviction.

My opinion? Bad decision.

I’ve conducted nearly 40 jury trials, which is more experience than most criminal defense attorneys have. In my experience, potential jurors have a tendency to mitigate, justify, deny, back-pedal and just plain cover up any biases they have. It’s human nature. Therefore, if any juror states they have a biases which prejudice a criminal defendant, then that juror should be excused. Period.

Unfortunately, it appears Defense Counsel also failed to strike Juror #10. That is unfortunate as well. As the judge said, however, this may have been strategic. Perhaps Defense Counsel wanted to avoid impaneling a potential juror who was actually more biased than Juror #10. We don’t know.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an experienced and proactive defense attorney is the first step toward gaining justice.

WA Supreme Court Changes Race Bias Jury Selection Test

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In State v. Jefferson, the WA Supreme Court modified the the third step of a Batson challenge to a peremptory strike of a juror in Washington. At the final step, the trial court must ask whether an objective observer could view race or ethnicity as a factor in the use of peremptory strike. If so, then the strike must be denied and the challenge to that strike must be accepted.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On February 14, 2013, Jefferson was involved in a fight over a pair of designer sunglasses. The fight ended with the shooting of Rosendo Robinson. Jefferson was subsequently charged with attempted murder in the first degree, assault in the first degree, and unlawful possession of a firearm in the first degree. His defense was that someone else pulled the trigger.

Jury selection began on May 4, 2015. On the second day of jury selection, the State exercised a peremptory strike against Juror 10, the last African-American in the jury pool. Jefferson challenged this strike with a Batson motion. After going through the three-step Batson analysis, the trial court denied the Batson motion and ruled that the State had provided a nondiscriminatory explanation for its peremptory challenge of Juror 10. The trial proceeded and lasted approximately 10 days.

The jury convicted Jefferson of attempted murder in the first degree, assault in the first degree, and unlawful possession of a firearm in the first degree. Jefferson was sentenced to 337.5 months of incarceration.

Jefferson appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions. He appealed again. This time, the WA Supreme Court granted Jefferson’s appeal and addressed Jefferson then petitioned for review on three issues: (1) whether the trial court erred in denying the Batson motion to deny the State’s peremptory strike of Juror 10 under the current Batson test, (2) whether this court should revisit the Batson test, and (3) whether the trial court erred in denying Jefferson’s motion for mistrial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court described the Batson test. First, the trial court must recognize a prima facie case of discriminatory purpose when a party strikes the last member of a racially cognizable group. Second, the burden shifts to the State to come forward with a race-neutral explanation for the challenge. If the State meets its burden at step two, then third, the trial court then has the duty to determine if the defendant has established purposeful discrimination.

“We hold that the trial court correctly ruled that there was no purposeful discrimination in the peremptory strike of Juror 10 under Batson,” said the Court. “However, our Batson protections are not robust enough to effectively combat racial discrimination during jury selection.” In fact, said the Court, the Batson framework makes it very difficult for defendants to prove discrimination even where it almost certainly exists.

“We need to do better to achieve the objectives of protecting litigants’ rights to equal protection of the laws and jurors’ rights to participate in jury service free from racial discrimination.”

Consequently, the Court modified its three-step Batson test by replacing Batson’ s current inquiry at step three with a new inquiry.

“If a Batson challenge to a peremptory strike of a juror proceeds to that third step of Batson’s three-part inquiry, then the trial court must ask whether an objective observer could view race or ethnicity as a factor in the use of the peremptory strike. If so, then the strike must be denied and the challenge to that strike must be accepted.”

Applying this new standard, the Court found that race could have been a factor in Juror 10’s dismissal. Here, the prosecutor essentially called out Juror 10 with a sarcastic comment for no apparent reason. Taken together with other evidence on the record, the prosecutor lacked racially neutral reasons for striking Juror 10. The strike reflected differential treatment of the sole African-American juror, and hence, the strike supported an inference of implicit bias. The WS Supreme Court quoted the late U.S. Supre Court’s Justice Thurgood Marshall, who expressed his concern about such nebulous justifications in the Batson opinion:

“A prosecutor’s own conscious or unconscious racism may lead him easily to the conclusion that a prospective black juror is “sullen,” or “distant,” a characterization that would not have come to his mind if a white juror had acted identically. A judge’s own conscious or unconscious racism may lead him to accept such an explanation as well supported.”

Furthermore, the WA Supreme Court reasoned that in its Saintcalle opinion, it recognized the pervasive force of unconscious bias, stating, “People are rarely aware of the actual reasons for their discrimination and will genuinely believe the race-neutral reason they create to mask it.”

The Court therefore reversed Jefferson’s convictions and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Although the facts are against the defendant and are sympathetic toward the victim, race should never play a factor in the administration of justice. The WA Supreme Court’s new Batson framework rightfully addresses the problem of implicit race bias. This case is an excellent step in the right direction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and there’s some belief that implicit racial bias affects the investigations, prosecution and/or judicial proceedings of the case. It’s very important to hire defense counsel that is sensitive to and familiar with the nuances of racial biases that are implicit throughout the criminal justice system.

WA State Abolishes Death Penalty

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But the court’s opinion eliminated it entirely, converted the sentences for the state’s eight death row inmates to life in prison without release, and supported a trend away from capital punishment in the U.S.

“The death penalty is becoming increasingly geographically isolated,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. “It’s still on the books in 30 states, but it’s not being used in 30 states. It’s becoming a creature of the Deep South and the Southwest.”

Texas continues to execute more prisoners than any other state — 108 since 2010. Florida has executed 28, Georgia 26 and Oklahoma 21 in that time frame. But nationally, death sentences are down 85 percent since the 1990s, Dunham said.

In the past 15 years, seven states — Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York — have abandoned capital punishment through court order or legislative act, and three — Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania — have adopted moratoriums.

The concerns cited in those states have ranged from procedural matters, such as the information provided to sentencing jurors in New York, to worries about executing an innocent person or racial and other disparities in who is sentenced to death, as was the case in Washington.

“The death penalty is unequally applied — sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote in the lead opinion.

“Our capital punishment law lacks ‘fundamental fairness.”  ~Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst 

According to La Corte and Johnson, defense lawyers had long challenged the death penalty on those grounds. This time, death penalty critics were armed with more data about how capital punishment works, including a statistical analysis by University of Washington sociologists. Their report showed that although prosecutors were not more likely to seek the execution of black defendants, juries were about four times more likely to sentence black defendants to death.

“Now the information is plainly before us,” Fairhurst wrote. “To the extent that race distinguishes the cases, it is clearly impermissible and unconstitutional.”