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Decisions

New York Court of Appeals Grants New Trial Given Batson Violation

December 22, 2016

Mr. Joseph Bridgeforth, an African-American man, was arrested and charged with several robbery counts.  During voir dire, the prosecutor used peremptory challenges to remove a number of prospective jurors, one of whom was an Indian-American woman with a dark complexion.  Defense counsel raised a Batson claim, asserting that the prosecutor had impermissibly struck five dark-skinned women, and the prosecutor responded that skin color was not a valid category under Batson.  Although the trial court did not rule whether the defense had satisfied Batson’s “prima facie” case at step one, the prosecutor nonetheless proceeded to argue that she had a non-discriminatory reason for striking every juror, yet failed to articulate any basis for removing the Indian-American woman.  Defense counsel responded that that prospective juror gave no indication that she could not be fair and impartial, but the court refused to seat her.

The Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed, ruling, in part, that the defense had failed to meet its “prima facie burden of establishing that the prosecutor exercised a peremptory challenge to remove that prospective juror on the basis of her membership in a constitutionally cognizable class.”

In a decision dated December 22, 2016, the Court of Appeals reversed.  Preliminarily, the Court ruled that skin color was a distinct classification from race for purposes of Batson and the New York State Constitution, and was entitled to the same constitutional protection.  Thus, a movant can make out a prima facie case of discrimination under step one of Batson by showing that peremptory strikes were used against potential jurors with a similar skin color, as Mr. Bridgeforth had claimed.  On the merits, the Court ruled that the defense had made out a prima facie case given that the prosecutor had struck five dark-colored women, and that the prosecutor’s failure to give any reason for striking the Indian-American prospective juror should have resulted in that juror being seated.  The Court thus reversed Mr. Bridgeforth’s conviction and remanded for a new trial.

Tammy Linn briefed and argued Mr. Bridgeforth’s case before the Second Department as well as the Court of Appeals.

The New York Law Journal covered the decision here.