(CN) – The 9th Circuit threw out the murder conviction in the strangling death of Tracey Biletnikoff, the daughter of former NFL receiver Fred Biletnikoff, because the prosecutor was racially motivated in striking at least one black juror candidate.
Mohammed Haroon Ali was convicted in 2001 of killing girlfriend Tracey Biletnikoff, whose father was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame after a record-setting career with the Oakland Raiders.
During jury selection, prosecutor Stephen Wagstaffe struck the only two black members of the jury pool.
Ali admitted to strangling Biletnoff in 1999, but pleaded not guilty at his trial in San Mateo County. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 55 years to life in state prison.
He claimed the peremptory strikes had been racially motivated and had violated his equal protection rights.
Judge Berzon agreed, ruling that “the prosecutor’s purported race-neutral reasons for striking at least one of the jurors were pretexts for racial discrimination.”
Wagstaffe said he dismissed one potential juror, M.C., because of her previous experience in the criminal justice system. Her daughter had been the victim of an attempted molestation by M.C.’s stepson.
But after analyzing the jury pool, Berzon determined that Wagstaffe did not “consistently” strike jurors with experience in the system.
“In fact, he accepted at least two white jurors who had more problematic experiences than M.C.,” Berzon noted. The prosecutor also accepted other jurors who stated their biases more bluntly than M.C. had.
The San Francisco-based appeals court found Wagstaffe’s other justifications for striking M.C. – that she would view “aggressive” cross-examination as unprofessional, and that she would be reluctant to judge another person based on her Christian faith – as pretexts for racial discrimination.
Wagstaffe’s decision to strike the other black juror candidate, Darrell Jefferson, “is likewise weak,” Berzon concluded. Reversing the district court’s ruling, the 9th Circuit granted Ali a new trial.