CHICAGO (CN) – A black man sentenced to death almost 30 years ago deserves a new trial because the prosecution unconstitutionally nixed black prospective jurors, the 7th Circuit ruled.
In 1984, James Harris was convicted of murder, attempted murder, aggravated battery and attempted armed robbery at a tavern on the South Side of Chicago. He was sentenced to death, but former Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
Harris appealed his conviction and sentence, arguing primarily that the prosecutor had exercised peremptory challenges based on race. While his case was pending, the Supreme Court decided Batson v. Kentucky, which held that such racial bias in jury selection violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The court’s ruling applied retroactively to all cases on direct review.
Harris’ case bounced around in appeals, reaching the Illinois Supreme Court multiple times. The inmate says nine of the 17 black jurors whom prosecutors challenged were removed solely based on race.
At Harris’ Batson hearing – three years after the original voir dire – the trial judge credited the nondiscriminatory explanation that the assistant district attorney gave for the jury selection. The judge said the prosecutor was “extremely candid throughout the proceedings, and I believed his explanations throughout.”
Though the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed, and a federal judge rejected Harris’ habeas petition, the 7th Circuit was unconvinced.
The three-judge panel said Wednesday that it was particularly shocked by the “staggering” number of black jurors dismissed by the prosecution.
“Sixty prospective jurors were questioned during voir dire,” Judge John Tinder wrote for the court. “The state used at least 15 of its 20 peremptory strikes, or 75%, on African Americans,” he added.
Though the record was somewhat unclear on the race of two prospective jurors, both parties agreed that approximately 21 were black.
“Hence, African Americans composed 35% (21 of 60) of the prospective jurors under consideration,” the 48-page decision states. “The state removed at least 71% of them (15 of 21). … Thus, the state used its peremptory strikes to eliminate nearly all of the African American prospective jurors.”
Harris challenged nine of the 17 potentially discriminatory strikes. Even under the “highly deferential standard” applied, the federal appeals court said five of these were improper.
“Keep in mind that one discriminatory strike is enough to show an equal protection violation; as will be show, we conclude that no less than five of the strikes should have been disallowed under Batson,” Tinder wrote.
The unanimous decision describes all five of the improperly dismissed jurors, dissecting the prosecutor’s proffered explanations for removal.
The prosecutor’s justifications had included a desire to avoid jurors who were teachers or spouses of teachers, to avoid causing a juror’s work schedule undue hardship, and to avoid individuals with exposure to past criminal trials. One novel explanation was a desire to exclude music or other liberal arts majors because they would be “the type of [people who tend] to be creative and consider matters outside the evidence and may go beyond the strictures of the law.”
But these justifications either did not apply to the jurors in question or were not evenly applied to jurors of all races, the 7th Circuit found.
“The ASA’s testimony in the Batson hearing suggests that he was not reciting his recollection of his reasons for the strike but rather was looking at the record and trying to come up with race-neutral reasons to justify the strike,” Tinder wrote.
The District Court must grant Harris a writ of habeas corpus unless Illinois elects to retry Harris within 120 days.
“We are well aware that the crimes with which Harris was charged occurred almost 30 years ago. But ‘the passage of time is not a basis for overlooking the prosecutors’ violations of the equal protection clause,'” Tinder wrote.