CHICAGO (CN) - Prosecutors in northern Indiana may have unconstitutionally kept two black women off the jury in a murder trial, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Two black men, Styles Taylor and Keon Thomas, were accused of robbing and murdering an elderly, white gun store owner in Hammond, Ind. The government sought the death penalty for both defendants, though it was not determined who was the shooter.
During jury selection, the prosecutor used peremptory strikes against five black jurors. Defense counsel challenged the strikes against two of the jurors: Heshla Watson and Jamie Golliday.
The government claimed the strikes were justified because women were reluctant to impose the death penalty on the non-shooter. The district court accepted this race-neutral explanation and denied the challenges.
Taylor and Thomas were convicted and sentenced to life.
The case has a long history in the 7th Circuit.
"Twice we have remanded the case to the district court for further explanation of whether the prosecutor's stated reason was credible," Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the three-judge panel.
"On appeal a second time, we remanded again, specifically identifying a missing link in the district court's decision: The court had 'provide[d] no credibility determination as to the critical issue, which is why the prosecutor would excuse an African-American potential juror based on the answers to the non-shooter question, but would not excuse a similarly-situated white juror for that same reason.'" (brackets in original)
The district court held an evidentiary hearing where the prosecutor offered six new reasons for the strikes, mostly references to Watson and Golliday's responses on the juror questionnaire. In a 34-page opinion, the court again affirmed the strikes.
Taylor and Thomas appealed, saying that allowing the prosecution to introduce new arguments was "impermissible bolstering," without which the prosecutor's rationale could not be considered credible.
The 7th Circuit agreed, citing Supreme Court precedent: "a trial court must confine itself to the initial reasons offered in support of a peremptory strike."
"It's not possible to parse the district court's decision, separating the permissible from the impermissible reasons supporting the court's credibility finding," wrote Sykes.
The 7th Circuit again sent the case back to the district court in Hammond.
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