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Louisiana Supreme Court Vacates Conviction for Batson Violation

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Court of Louisiana affirmed a court of appeals determination that a trial court erred when it denied a Batson challenge to the State striking one of two black jurors from a criminal trial panel because the trial court rejected the State’s first reason for exclusion, and the Supreme Court couldn’t presume the trial court accepted the State’s second demeanor-based reason where the trial court didn’t make an explicit determination. The Court sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Larry Broussard Jr. was convicted of aggravated flight from an officer after a trial in Louisiana state court. During voir dire, defense counsel challenged, pursuant to Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), the State’s use of a backstrike against a black woman. The trial court asked for racially neutral explanations for the strike, which the State offered. The trial court then denied the challenge, and Broussard appealed.

Batson held that the Equal Protection Clause prohibits the use of peremptory challenges to excuse jurors on the basis of race. Reviewing the lower court’s decision, a court of appeals found a Batson violation and reversed the trial court.

On appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, the State argued that the trial court was correct in denying the Batson challenge. The State contended that the defendant had not been required to make a prima facie showing of purposeful discrimination by the trial court, as required by Batson. It also argued that prosecutors offered two racially neutral explanations for the peremptory backstrike, and while the trial judge rejected one, he said nothing about the other demeanor-based reason. Thus, according to the State, he must have found it persuasive.

The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected both arguments. Regardless of whether an explicit prima facie showing of purposeful discrimination was made by the defense, it was obvious that the trial judge drew such an inference because he asked the State for race-neutral explanations. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court made this very point when it said, “Once a prosecutor has offered a race-neutral explanation for the peremptory challenges and the trial court has ruled on the ultimate question of intentional discrimination, the preliminary issue of whether the defendant has made a prima facie showing becomes moot.” Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352, 359 (1991).

The State offered the trial court two racially neutral explanations for the strike. The first, that the potential juror was a housekeeper and was not intelligent enough to serve on a jury, was resoundingly rejected by the trial court. The second explanation was that the woman was inattentive during voir dire. Without saying a word about the demeanor-based second explanation, the trial court denied the Batson challenge.

The appellate court ruled, and the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed, that it could not presume that the State’s argument about the juror’s demeanor was credited by the trial judge. There was simply no way to know because the judge said nothing about it. Once again, a U.S. Supreme Court case dictated the outcome. In Snyder v. Louisiana, 522 U.S. 472 (2008), the Supreme Court ruled that when the state offers a demeanor-based explanation for a strike and the trial court denies the challenge with no specific findings, any presumption that the trial court credited the demeanor explanation is erroneous.

Given this instruction, the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court that there was a Batson violation. Accordingly, Broussard’s conviction was thus vacated, and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: State v. Broussard, 2018 La. LEXIS 188 (2018). 

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