A single mistake in jury selection can result in an entire new trial. Nowhere is that truer than in the area of “Neil Challenges” and peremptory strikes. A mistake there is usually reversible error per se.
In Garcia v. State , 35 FLW D2328 (Fla 3rd DCA 2010), the Defense wanted to exercise a peremptory strike on a prospective juror. The trial judge would not allow it. The prospective juror ended up on the jury and the Defendant was convicted. There was no indication the juror was prejudiced against the Defendant, but his lawyer had wanted to strike the juror because she had had prior jury experience. The appellate court reversed the conviction because the trial judge failed to follow the three-step procedure for Neil Challenges as set forth in Melbourne v. State, 679 So.2d 759 (Fla. 1996). There was no need to establish the Defendant was prejudiced by the court’s error. Prejudice is presumed.
The challenged juror was argued to be Hispanic. The State Attorney had asked for a race neutral reason for the strike. This was insufficient to trigger a Neil inquiry. The Court held “the proper means of testing the peremptory challenge would have been to object [which wasn’t done], to show that the venire member is a member of a distinct racial group [which apparently was argued but never established], and then to request that the court ask a reason for the strike [which appears to have been the only thing done by the prosecutor].” Because this procedure was not followed, and because, on appeal, peremptory challenges are presumed to be exercised in a nondiscriminatory manner, the appellate court held it was not in a position to determine whether the strike was truly being exercised in a discriminatory manner by the defense attorney, and therefore the jury’s verdict was reversed.
November 2nd, 2010
Earlier this week the First District Court of Appeal, in a kafkaesque opinion, upheld a robbery conviction even though both the State and the Defense agreed on appeal that the trial judge had committed error during jury selection. In Hayes v. State, 35 FLW D2137A (Fla 1st DCA 2010), the defendant was charged with robbery and other crimes. During voir dire, his defense lawyer learned that one of the prospective jurors, a Ms. Haupt, had two family members in law enforcement. Obviously, this would be a concern to any defense lawyer in any criminal case so he exercised a peremptory strike to remove her. However, since the prospective juror was female, the prosecutor objected and requested a gender-neutral reason for the strike. The defense attorney, who was apparently surprised by the request since there were already so many women on the jury panel (and in fact the next prospective juror in the line-up was also a woman), said offhandedly: “I don’t have a gender neutral reason. She has some relatives or whatnot in law enforcement……” After hearing the explanation, the trial judge denied the strike on the grounds that the proffered reason “was not genuine under the circumstances.” In essence, the trial judge ruled he didn’t believe the criminal defense attorney’s explanation that he didn’t want to have law-enforcement-related jurors sitting on a criminal case. As a result, the woman with two family members in law enforcement sat of the jury, and James Hayes was convicted.
This is a troubling opinion. Judge Kahn wrote an excellent dissent. “I find the Attorney General’s confession of error on the jury selection issue both highly professional and highly perceptive” He noted: “As a practical matter, I can scarcely envision a situation where a defense lawyer might not, at a gut level, whether justified or not, feel concerned about defending a person accused of a serious felony before a jury comprised, even in part, of members with close relationships with law enforcement officers.” He concluded that by permitting the trial judge to prevent the peremptory strike, the majority’s opinion is “an invitation to arbitrary results,” because “until this decision, most criminal lawyers, both for the prosecution and the defense, believed that a prospective juror’s relationship with law enforcement officers would certainly be an important consideration in determining whether that juror would remain on the panel for a criminal case.” In fact, there is a case directly on point on this issue. See, Rojas v. State, 790 So.2d 1219 (Fla 3d DCA 2001) (holding that reason given for a peremptory strike — the proposed juror’s husband was a law enforcement officer — was gender neutral).
This case turns the law on the use of peremptory strikes on its head, and a perfectly valid, established and case-law-documented reason for striking a prospective juror can be discounted by a trial judge who subjectively doesn’t “believe” an attorney’s explanation.
There is a lesson to be learned from this case: Be careful what you say on the record. Think before you speak. The cold written transcript can belie your true thoughts and intentions. In this case the majority opinion relied heavily on the defense attorney’s offhanded comment that “I don’t have a gender neutral reason,” even though all experienced trial lawyers and judges know that, in reality, he did. This is a bad decision. Unfortunately, James Hayes is probably going to have to live with it — in jail.
September 30th, 2010