The Supreme Court of Washington blasted a common trial court practice Thursday that results in black defendants being sent to prison by all-white juries.
The court says racial discrimination in jury selection is rampant.
One Supreme Court justice said the dismissal of the only black juror in a King County murder case was so clearly racially biased, he would order a new trial.
The defendant is also black. Lila Silverstein represented him on appeal. She says when black jurors are excused from a case like this one, “They are described as either less intelligent or as inattentive, or as too old or too young, even when the objective evidence is to the contrary.”
The lead opinion from the court upheld the conviction in this case and said the juror in that case was excused properly under a standard that’s been in place for 25 years.
But the opinion also said that’s a sign that the standard is faulty.
James Bible, a criminal defense attorney and president of the Seattle King County Branch NAACP, thinks this is potentially a watershed moment.
Bible says it’s common for prosecutors to question a black juror until they get an answer that lets them have the juror excused for a reason that’s supposedly “race-neutral.” But with the race-neutral reason, he says, “You would have a sinking feeling in your gut that it was actually a pretext for race.”
Justices released charts and graphs showing that a black juror was asked three times as many questions as an average juror before prosecutors asked for her to go.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says his staff pored over the opinion for most of the afternoon, and so far he has drawn at least one conclusion. “I think it’s pretty clear to say that the State Supreme Court is uncomfortable with the current procedures for what we call Batson challenges in jury selection.”
The Batson standard is what Supreme Court justices criticized in their lead opinion.
Satterberg says he’s glad it was upheld in this case, and if rules have to change, he’d rather it not happen through an overturned conviction.
“The Supreme Court has the ability to develop court rules,” says Satterberg. “It’s a process that involves a lot of stakeholders; it takes a lot of time. They have a specific commission, a minority and justice commission, that can look at this as well. So I think this is an invitation to have further discussions. And frankly that’s where it should happen.”
Until then, James Bible predicts the new opinion could make prosecutors strategize differently about excusing a black juror when a black person is on trial.
Because, as Satterberg says, prosecutors have to be confident their reasons will hold up if they’re reviewed by the state’s highest court.
The court has now given 110 pages of reasons why they may not.