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Name: Sifuentes v. Brazelton
Case #: 13-17603
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 02/18/2016

State trial court’s order precluding the defense from rebutting the prosecution’s reasons for striking jurors after a Batson claim was arguably error, but harmless. In 1998, Sifuentes participated in a robbery during which a police officer was killed. During voir dire at his trial, the prosecutor used peremptory strikes to excuse nine black prospective jurors. Sifuentes made three motions under Batson v. Kentucky (1986) 476 U.S. 79. After each objection, the prosecutor was asked for and provided an explanation. During the first two motions the defense was not permitted to offer any rebuttal. The court denied the motions. The conviction was affirmed in state court. Sifuentes sought federal habeas relief, which the district court granted as to two jurors. The prosecution appealed. Held: Reversed. The state’s privilege to strike jurors is subject to an equal protection challenge that the striking was based on race. The defendant must make a prima facie showing of purposeful discrimination. The burden then shifts to the state to offer a race-neutral explanation. The trial court determines whether purposeful discrimination has been shown. Here, the state appellate court indicated the trial court arguably erred, but found the error harmless. Under AEDPA, the federal court determines whether the California court’s decision was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, federal law as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has not decided whether a defendant’s constitutional rights are violated when the trial court declines to allow the defense to participate in its Batson colloquy with the prosecutor (see Davis v. Ayala (2015) 135 S.Ct. 2187). Assuming there was constitutional error, there was no actual prejudice (see Brecht v. Abrahamson (1993) 507 U.S. 619). The record does not reflect that the trial court would have found the prosecutor’s explanations pretextual had the defense been allowed to rebut the prosecutor’s explanation. Thus, the California court’s harmless error determination was not an unreasonable application of Chapman.

The state appellate court’s decision upholding the trial court’s Batson credibility determinations was not based on an unreasonable determination of the facts, which precludes federal relief. Batson employs a burden-shifting approach in which the trial court’s determination whether the prosecutor has intentionally discriminated “turns on evaluation of credibility.” This is a question of fact that lies “peculiarly within a trial judge’s province.” On federal habeas review the standard is highly deferential. Under AEDPA, federal habeas relief may not be granted unless claims adjudicated on the merits in state court “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.” The federal court reviewed the record and conducted a comparative juror analysis because the state appellate court had not done so, and found the California Court of Appeal’s decision was not based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: