(CN) - A convicted murderer must be released or given a new trial, a federal judge ruled, finding that prosecutors systematically struck potential black jurors in a racially charged trial.
Floyd Richardson, a black man, was convicted in 1984 of robbing and murdering George Vrabel, a white clerk at a grocery store on the south side of Chicago. Several witnesses positively identified Richardson in a lineup and testified against him at trial. Richardson was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life without parole in 2003.
One year later, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly granted Richardson's writ of habeas corpus, finding that his conviction was tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. Kennelly ruled that the prosecutor engaged in "intentional deception that successfully tricked defense lawyers into deciding not to call a key eyewitness who would have said that Richardson was not the man who robbed and murdered George Vrabel," as reported by the Chicago Tribune. But the 7th Circuit reversed.
Last week, Kennelly granted Richardson's writ of habeas corpus on a different claim, finding that the prosecution systematically struck prospective black jurors in violation of his right to equal protection of the law.
Of the 41 prospective jurors tendered to the prosecution for selection, 18 were white and 23 were black. In its order, the court exhaustively reviewed each juror that the prosecution and defense accepted and excused.
"Even though the jurors tendered to the prosecution were predominantly black, the jury that ultimately decided Richardson's case was only one-third black and was two-thirds white," Kennelly wrote. "This occurred due to the prosecution's disproportionate use of its peremptory challenges against black jurors. Indeed, the prosecution excused only black jurors. It did not excuse a single white juror."
"The prosecution accepted one hundred percent of the white jurors tendered (eighteen of eighteen) but only thirty percent of the black jurors (seven of twenty-three)," he added.
"This is not a case in which the prosecution struck all of the black prospective jurors. Indeed, it could not have done so given the number of black prospective jurors in the venire."
"Though the presence of black jurors matters in the final analysis of whether discrimination has been proven, even a single discriminatory strike violates the Constitution," he added.
When Richardson raised this same issue at his trial, the judge cited an absence of evidence to support his claim that he could not make a ruling. "Contrary to the state trial judge's determination, the proportion of black persons among the jury venire cannot be said to be 'impossible to discern,'" Kennelly found.
"It is now clear that the prosecution used all sixteen of its challenges to strike black jurors. If this is not a pattern of strikes against African-American venirepersons, it is hard to know what would be," Kennelly said.
"Based on the record as it now exists, the court has no hesitation in concluding that Richardson had made out a prima facie case of discrimination as to one or more of the sixteen black prospective jurors whom the prosecution struck," he concluded. "The case was racially charged (a white victim, or actually two if one counts the other-crimes evidence, and a black defendant), and the prosecution excused only black jurors even though white jurors made up around half of those tendered. The result was a jury with a super-majority of white members, even though those tendered were racially split about fifty-fifty."
Illinois must release Richardson within 180 days unless he is given a new trial.
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