Where trial court made a sincere and reasoned attempt to evaluate the prosecutor’s reasons for challenging certain Black prospective jurors, its finding the challenges were based on race-neutral reasons was entitled to deference and there was no Batson/Wheeler error. Defendants Smith and Bennett fired shots at a group of teenagers, killing a bystander. Several days before this shooting, Bennett shot another man. Bennett was convicted of two murders. Smith was acquitted of murder but found guilty of illegal gun possession. On appeal both defendants argued they were denied equal protection and a representative jury because the prosecutor used three of his peremptory challenges to excuse potential Black jurors, in violation of Batson v. Kentucky (1986) 476 U.S. 79 and People v. Wheeler (1978) 22 Cal.3d 258. Held: Affirmed. A peremptory challenge may be made for any permissible reason or no reason at all. However, exercising a peremptory challenge solely on the basis of race violates the defendant’s right to equal protection of the laws. To assert this error, defendant must make a prima facie showing the prosecutor exercised a peremptory challenge based on race. The prosecutor must then demonstrate the challenges were exercised for a race-neutral reason. The trial court determines whether defendants have proven purposeful discrimination. Here, the trial court found that one juror was excused because he questioned the one-witness rule; another because the prosecutor felt his hearing issues would impair his ability to perceive details in the evidence; a third because he questioned the effectiveness of the justice system based on his own experiences with it. The trial court carefully considered the prosecutor’s reasons for challenging each of the three prospective jurors, concluding that all of the reasons given were valid and race-neutral and the justifications genuine. There was no abuse of discretion.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/archive/A141594.PDF