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First Circuit Reverses Denial of Habeas Relief Where District Court Found Batson Error but Observed AEDPA, Deferred to State Court’s Finding that No Batson Error Occurred

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island’s denial of habeas relief where the court found reversible error under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986) (defendant may challenge prosecutor’s peremptory strike of prospective juror as racially discriminatory), but nevertheless, deferred to the state Supreme Court’s contrary finding that no Batson error occurred in accordance with the deferential standard mandated by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). The Court declared that, however viewed, the state Supreme Court’s decision cannot withstand even the stringent AEDPA deferential standard because the court’s decision “rests on either an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, an unreasonable determination of the facts, or both.”

During jury selection at Leron Porter’s murder trial, Juror 103 — the sole Black person in the venire — initiated contact with the judge to advise that he was employed at Eleanor Slater Hospital where some of the patients are prisoners from a nearby correctional facility who routinely discuss cases of interest. Juror 103 indicated that he could potentially experience negative workplace consequences by serving as a juror from either his co-workers or prisoners, depending on the outcome of the trial. When asked if he could still be fair and impartial as a juror, he answered that he could. 

Despite Juror 103’s assurances, the prosecutor exercised a peremptory strike to remove him. The prosecutor provided his purported race-neutral explanation for the strike in a choppy, meandering statement, indicating misgivings about Juror 103’s ability to be impartial in light of the potential workplace consequences despite his repeated assurances. And of significance to the appeal, the prosecutor also stated of Juror 103: “He’s a member of the African American community, the defendant at the bar is a member of the African American community, he’s the only one on the panel who is, and if he were to vote guilty there could be consequences to it.”

Porter’s counsel objected on Batson grounds, arguing that Juror 103 was being struck because he was “the only African American on the panel” and “because the defendant is an African American.”

The trial court stated its “job at this point is to determine whether or not the State’s explanation is a race-neutral explanation” and whether that explanation “is a credible explanation.” The trial judge then remarked that “if [he] were a lawyer in [the prosecutor’s] seat, [he] would not want this juror on [his] trial either, and it would not be for race reasons at all” but because Juror 103 “harbor[ed] grave concerns as to what he will be exposed to in his workplace” due to his verdict and that is “a race-neutral explanation.” The trial court excused Juror 103.

Porter was convicted. He appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, arguing, inter alia, that the prosecutor “failed to offer a valid race-neutral reason for challenging” Juror 103. Without addressing the prosecutor’s explicit reference to Porter and Juror 103’s race, the Supreme Court found that the “prosecutor reasoned that a strike was necessary based on Juror 103’s concerns … about potential retaliation” and had “little difficulty concluding that the state’s reasoning for challenging [Juror 103] qualifies as race-neutral and nonpretextual.” The Supreme Court affirmed, and Porter ultimately filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, alleging that the prosecutor’s explanation for striking Juror 103 violates Batson.

The district court concluded that “the State’s proffered reason for striking Juror 103 [was] race based” and Porter’s “rights under Batson appear to have been violated.” Determining that the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s assessment and findings were not “beyond the realm of fair-minded judicial reasoning,” the district court concluded it had no choice but to deny the habeas petition under the highly deferential standards of federal habeas review. But the court subsequently issued a certificate of appealability.

The First Circuit observed that under the AEDPA, a prisoner seeking federal habeas relief with respect to a claim “adjudicated on the merits in State court” must show that the state court’s decision either “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” § 2254 (d). The statute provides for two distinct avenues of relief, the Court stated.

A decision is “contrary to” when “the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Supreme] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000). The term “clearly established federal law” refers to the holdings of the Supreme Court, not dicta. Id.

An “unreasonable application” is when “the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court’s decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner’s case.” Id. A showing that the State court’s decision “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts demands more than demonstrating ‘reasonable minds reviewing the record might disagree’ about the finding in question.” Brumfield v. Cain, 576 U.S. 305 (2015). But “deference does not imply abandonment or abdication of judicial review.” Id.

The “Constitution forbids striking even a single prospective juror for a discriminatory purpose.” Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472 (2008). Determining whether a peremptory strike is discriminatory involves a three-step process: (1) a defendant must make a prima facie showing that a peremptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race; (2) if that showing is made, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question; and (3) in light of the parties’ submissions, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination. Foster v. Chatman, 578 U.S. 488 (2016); see Batson.

At the first step of the Batson framework, the defendant is not required to show that the peremptory “challenge was more likely than not the product of purposeful discrimination.” Johnson v. California, 545 U.S. 162 (2005). Rather, the defendant need only produce “evidence sufficient to permit the trial judge to draw an inference that discrimination has occurred.” Id.

The second step is concerned with “the facial validity of the prosecutor’s explanation. Unless a discriminatory intent is inherent in the prosecutor’s explanation, the reason offered will be deemed neutral.” Purkett v. Elem, 514 U.S. 765 (1995). “[T]he prosecutor may not rebut the defendant’s prima facie case of discrimination by stating merely that he challenged jurors of the defendant’s race on the assumption — or his intuitive judgement — that they would be partial to the defendant because of their shared race.” Batson

It’s at the third step “that the persuasiveness of the justification becomes relevant.” Purkett. At this point in the inquiry, the trial court must determine “whether the proffered [race-neutral] reasons are pretextual and the prosecutor instead exercised peremptory strikes on the basis of race.” Flowers v. Mississippi, 139 S. Ct. 2228 (2019).

In the current case, the parties agree that the first step of the Batson framework is moot since the prosecutor tendered his explanation for striking Juror 103 of his own volition. As such, the Court turned to the second step, i.e., whether the prosecutor carried his burden of establishing a race-neutral explanation. The Court observed that nowhere in the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s opinion is the prosecutor’s remark about Porter and Juror 103 both being African American even mentioned. The Court reasoned “that the simplest explanation for this conspicuous void in the state court’s opinion is that the state court assembled its own rationale for the strike rather than examining the one put forth by the prosecutor. If that is what happened, then the state court unreasonably applied the Batson rule.” See Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005) (holding that a court’s post hoc “substitution of a reason for eliminating [a prospective juror] does nothing to satisfy the prosecutor’s burden of stating a racially neutral explanation for their own actions”).

Alternatively, the Court explained that the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s decision “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” The Court observed: “According to the state court, ‘the prosecutor reasoned that a strike was necessary based on Juror 103’s concerns — raised at the outset — about potential retaliation he could face as a juror in this case.’ The court thus recast the prosecutor’s explanation as though he were simply parroting or amplifying Juror 103’s own comments. But the prosecutor’s actual explanation was far more pointed and, at bottom, turned on his mistrust of Juror 103’s professed capacity to be fair and impartial — a mistrust that he explained in significant part on the ground that the petitioner and Juror 103 were both black.”

Notably, Juror 103 never mentioned race or even hinted that it figured into his concerns about workplace retaliation. Only the prosecutor mentioned the race of Porter and Juror 103 being the same — and the State court failed to comment on the remark or factor it into its analysis, the Court pointed out.

Thus, the Court held that the prosecutor’s explanation is inherently discriminatory, not race-neutral, and thus the prosecutor failed to satisfy his burden under the second step of the Batson framework. Consequently, Porter carried his burden of proving a Batson violation, so his conviction must be vacated, the Court ruled. See Batson. The Court explained that a “completed Batson violation is a ‘structural error’ that defies harmless-error analysis.” Sanchez v. Roden, 753 F.3d 279 (1st Cir. 2014); see Weaver v. Massachusetts, 137 S. Ct. 1899 (2017).

Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the district court and remanded to that court with instructions to grant the habeas writ, ordering the state courts to vacate Porter’s convictions and to release Porter unless he is tried anew within 90 days of the district court’s order. See: Porter v. Coyne-Fague, 35 F.4th 68 (1st Cir. 2022). 

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