Criminal, Batson Challenge: COMMONWEALTH V. COKER (SC 9/20/2007)


DATE RENDERED: 09/20/2007

SC reversed CA decision and reinstated Coker’s convictions. The sole issue before the SC involved the Commonwealth’s exercise of a peremptory challenge during jury selection in Coker’s trial on charges that he extorted, or attempted to extort, his former employer. Upon accepting discretionary review, SC disagreed with CA’s finding that the trial court’s acceptance of the Commonwealth’s facially race-neutral explanation for its peremptory strike was clearly erroneous.

The Equal Protection Clause is violated when a potential juror is struck from a venire solely on the basis of race. When a litigant believes that a potential juror has been impermissibly struck for racial reasons, the complaining litigant’s objection is governed by the three-step process the United States Supreme Court set forth in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79,106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed .2d 69 (1986). The Batson framework is designed to be efficient in order for jury selection to be as uninterrupted as possible. Step one required Coker to make a prima facie showing of purposeful racial discrimination by the Commonwealth in its strike of the African-American veniremember. The Commonwealth was not required to respond to Coker’s challenge unless the trial court found that Coker had satisfied his burden of making a prima facie showing. But whether Coker actually made a sufficient prima facie showing is moot since the Commonwealth responded to Coker’s Batson objections. So the parties proceeded to step two of the Batson framework. Under step two, the burden shifted to the Commonwealth to demonstrate a racially neutral reason for exercising its peremptory challenge. At this step, all that is required is that a prosecutor’s articulated reason for exercising a peremptory challenge be race-neutral on its face. As the United States Supreme Court has explained, "[t]he second step of this Batson process does not demand an explanation that is persuasive, or even plausible."s There is nothing inherently racially-oriented about the Commonwealth’s proffered reason-its belief that the veniremember’s volunteered answers evidenced a bias in favor of the defendant. Step three of the Batson framework required the trial court to determine if Coker had met his burden of proving "purposeful discrimination ."" In other words, having properly found that the Commonwealth’s proffered reason was, on its face, race-neutral, the final step was for the trial court to determine if the Commonwealth’s race-neutral reason was actually a pretext for racial discrimination. Because the trial court’s decision on this point requires it to assess the credibility and demeanor of the attorneys before it, the trial court’s ultimate decision on a Batson challenge is like a finding of fact that must be given great deference by an appellate court. Under the facts of the case at hand, SC did not agree with the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that the trial court’s decision on this point was clearly erroneous.

Digested by Scott C. Byrd

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