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What is a Batson Challenge?

Before a criminal trial begins, the prosecution and the defense are allowed to question potential jurors before they are seated. The purpose of jury selection is to screen out any biases that might compromise a juror’s ability to render a fair and impartial verdict. Either side may challenge a juror “for cause,” meaning they fail to meet a basic requirement for serving as a juror.

A party may also make what is called a “peremptory challenge.” This means the prosecution or the defense objects to seating a juror without having to give cause. Basically, if an attorney simply has a “bad feeling” about a juror, they can exclude them from the final jury without having to give the judge a specific reason.

Normally, both sides have broad discretion to exercise peremptory challenges. But there are limits. In a famous 1986 decision, Batson v. Kentucky, the United States Supreme Court held that peremptory challenges cannot be used by a prosecutor to eliminate potential jurors on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, or religion. The court considered such actions to be a violation of the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

To put it in simple terms–If there is a Black defendant on trial, the State’s Attorney cannot hide behind peremptory challenges to eliminate all prospective Black jurors from the trial. If a defendant believes that is what is taking place during their jury selection, they can raise a Batson challenge.

Court of Special Appeals Orders New Trial After Prosecutor Improperly Kicks Only Black Juror Off Panel

The Batson challenge is a three-party inquiry designed to ascertain whether a prosecutor had a nondiscriminatory reason for excluding a juror, or whether it was simply a pretext to get rid of jurors based on one of the protected characteristics listed above. As the Maryland Court of Special Appeals explained in a recent case, when considering a Batson challenge the trial judge must “assess whether the striking party acted consistently” in objecting to jurors based on a purportedly race-neutral reason.

The case before the Court of Special Appeals, Bennett v. State, involved a Cecil County defendant charged with assault and conspiracy to commit robbery. The defendant is Black. During jury selection, the State’s Attorney exercised a peremptory challenge against the only Black member of the panel. The defense raised a Batson challenge. The prosecution’s explanation for the challenge was that the Black juror said her mother had been the victim of a crime for which the perpetrator was not convicted. Consequently, the prosecutor was concerned this would lead the juror to “have some kind of either distrust in the prosecutor’s office or in law enforcement.”

The trial judge accepted the prosecutor’s reason and denied the Batson challenge. The seated jury proceeded to convict the defendant. The Court of Special Appeals ordered a new trial, however, finding the judge erred in not upholding the defendant’s Batson challenge. The problem, the Court explained, was that two white jurors were seated–without objection from the prosecution–even though they also had family members who were victims of crimes where the perpetrators were never convicted. As a result, the Court said the prosecution could not offer a “credible, racially neutral rationale” for eliminating the only Black juror from the panel.

Contact Waldorf Criminal Defense Lawyer Robert Castro Today

This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.