(CN) - A black man convicted of two murders and sentenced to death in 1989 can seek a new trial because the prosecution excluded a black prospective juror, the Ninth Circuit ruled.
After a California jury convicted Steven Crittenden, he filed a federal habeas petition, arguing that a prospective juror, nonparty Manzanita Casey, was excluded because she is black, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The prosecutor claimed that he gave Casey the most unfavorable rating, XXXX, because she opposed the death penalty, and that he chose jurors "who had something to lose in society, who might be victims of crime, solid citizens, preferably well educated," according to court records.
But Crittenden argued that Casey was a "solid member of the . . . community in terms of age, family composition, employment, length of residence, and so forth," the prosecutor examined her longer than other jurors, and the same prosecutor struck the only black prospective juror in a similar case, court filings show.
An Eastern California district court first denied the petition, finding that the prosecutor would have cut Casey even if race had played no role, since she was against the death penalty. But the lower court later granted the petition on remand, finding the prosecutor was substantially motivated by race.
The district court held that a comparison of Casey and the only other potential juror rated XXXX, Lois Smith, demonstrated the prosecutor's racial bias. Smith said she would be "extra cautious" in Crittenden's case, based on her white husband's wrongful implication in a crime wherein the suspect was black, according to the Ninth Circuit ruling.
The lower court found that the prosecutor should have noted Smith's statement, as "a key element of [the] evidence against [Crittenden] at trial was that eye witnesses had seen a black man matching [Crittenden's] description near the victims' home when the murders occurred," court records show.
Casey, on the other hand, was a "model prosecution juror according to [the prosecutor's] own criteria," the district court ruled, noting that she had been married for 42 years, lived in the same home for 17 years, went to church, and was concerned about drugs and street gangs.
The state appealed, but a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court's ruling Monday.
"Although Casey opposed the death penalty, she repeatedly affirmed that her opposition would not prohibit her from following the court's instructions, applying the proper standard of proof or voting to impose the death penalty," Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the majority of a divided three-judge panel.
The San Francisco-based appeals court found that the comparison of Casey and Smith shows racial bias.
"Although Casey and Smith both expressed opposition to and reservations about imposing the death penalty, the voir dire transcripts support the court's conclusion that Smith was the worse juror for the prosecution," Fisher wrote. "Smith arguably expressed stronger opposition to the death penalty than did Casey - she said she found the prospect of serving on a jury in a death penalty case 'horrifying' - and recounted a 'horrendous' experience with law enforcement caused by mistaken eyewitness identification." (Emphasis in original.)
Judge M. Margaret McKeown dissented, holding that the prosecutor was not racially driven.
"In observing voir dire, the trial judge characterized potential juror Manzanita Casey as 'indecisive' and noted that she 'couldn't decide whether or not she would be able to follow the law,'" McKeown wrote. "He presciently observed that a '[People v.] Wheeler motion would be inappropriate.' Striking a juror who is a death penalty 'wobbler' is hardly a basis to impute purposeful discrimination to the prosecutor." (Emphasis in original.)
Mark Goldrosen, one of Crittenden's attorneys, told Courthouse News that they are "very pleased" with Monday's ruling.
"We have long believed that Mr. Crittenden's trial was tainted by the improper exclusion of the sole African-American juror in the panel, as now recognized by the Ninth Circuit," Goldrosen said.
The government has not returned a request for comment.
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