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Batson Violation Saves Accused from Death Row - For Now

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By William Peacock, Esq. on February 28, 2013 5:01 PM

“Because we determine that Mr. Adkins is entitled to habeas relief based on his Batson claim, we do not decide his other claims.”

Batson was decided in 1986. How is it that we’re still talking about cases of prosecutors striking jurors for race-based reasons?

In late 1988, a jury was selected for the trial of Ricky Adkins, who was accused of murdering Billie Dean Hamilton. Both the defendant and the victim were Caucasian. During jury selection, the prosecutor used peremptory challenges to remove nine of eleven black members. Only one of the remaining two made the final jury.

You’re probably wondering, “why didn’t the defendant object?”

The rule in Alabama at the time of the trial was that white defendants lacked standing to challenge peremptory strikes of black jurors. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Powers v. Ohio, which held that "a criminal defendant may object to race-based exclusions of jurors effected through peremptory challenges whether or not the defendant and the excluded juror share the same races."

The Alabama Supreme Court's remedy was to order a Batson hearing in mid-1992, years after the initial trial. During the hearing, Adkins satisfied the first Batson requirement, the prima facie case of discrimination. The prosecutor then offered race-neutral explanations for the removed jurors, as the second Batson step requires.

The problem was, the explanations were incorrect. One juror was removed because he was single. He was married. The prosecutors' notes also included the race of the black jurors, but not of the other jurors.

Nonetheless, the trial court allowed the prosecutor to submit an affidavit explaining the marital mistake. The defense was never allowed to rebut or argue against the prosecutor's affidavit. The court also relied upon its personal knowledge of the prosecutor from other cases.

The final Batson step is for the court to evaluate the parties' submissions to determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination. The trial court found no Batson violation, nor did the Alabama Supreme Court on review, despite the notes on race, the marital mistake, the prima facie case of discrimination, the affidavit submitted without input from Adkins, and the trial court's reliance on personal experience outside the record.

The Alabama Supreme Court's consideration of the final Batson step consisted of two cursory sentences. Despite the mandatory AEDPA deference due to state courts' rulings, the Eleventh Circuit felt that the state Supreme Court's Batson ruling, especially the third step, was inadequate, especially since it failed to address any of the numerous valid issues in its opinion.

After hurdling AEDPA deference, the Eleventh did its own Batson review based on the record. Unsurprisingly, it found a Batson violation and grated habeas corpus. However, it also conditioned the writ on the right of the State of Alabama to retry him.

If the state thought doing a Batson hearing on a cold record was difficult, a murder trial on a twenty-five year old crime is going to be even worse.

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