O C F I T B L O G Legal Georgia man sentenced to death challenges state’s striking of Black jurors

Georgia man sentenced to death challenges state’s striking of Black jurors

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The Petitions of the Week column highlights a selection of cert petitions recently filed in the Supreme Court. A list of all petitions we’re watching is available here.

In its landmark 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to strike jurors in a criminal trial because of their race. Ten years later, in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Congress made it more difficult for incarcerated people to seek release from prison by arguing that their convictions are unconstitutional – including on grounds of racial discrimination in jury selection. This week, we highlight petitions that ask the court to consider, among other things, whether a Black man sentenced to death in Georgia after the state sought to strike all but one eligible Black juror can satisfy the heightened standard to challenge his conviction.

Warren King was one of two men arrested and charged with killing Karen Crosby, the owner of a convenience store in Surrency, Georgia, nearly 30 years ago.

Once King’s case proceeded to trial, initial questioning of potential jurors by both the prosecution and defense whittled down the pool to 42 candidates, eight of whom were Black. The assistant district attorney, John Johnson, was entitled to strike up to 10 remaining jurors from the pool; he struck seven of the eight Black jurors.

King challenged Johnson’s decision to strike the seven potential Black jurors as racially discriminatory under Batson. The trial judge agreed that Johnson had impermissibly struck one potential juror because she was Black.

Johnson then grew angry. After the judge told him to “calm down” so that he could “tell me what you want to tell me,” Johnson delivered a lengthy speech. “I find it improper for this Court to tell me that I cannot decide” whom to strike from the jury, Johnson began. He continued by criticizing the Supreme Court’s decision in Batson as not “racially neutral” and said that there were often so many Black jurors in the jury pool that it was often an “impossibility” to remove them all from the jury.

Over Johnson’s objection, the trial court reinstated the Black juror. The jury – made up of 10 white jurors and two Black jurors – convicted King and sentenced him to death.

On appeal, King challenged Johnson’s explanations for striking the six other Black jurors. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld his conviction, finding that the trial court was justified in accepting Johnson’s explanations for those strikes.

After unsuccessfully challenging the constitutionality of his conviction in state court – a process that took 12 years – King then went to federal court, seeking review of the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision. He argued that the court misapplied Batson and that, if it had weighed all the evidence of racial discrimination, it should have tossed out his conviction.

A federal district court in Georgia denied King relief, and a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld that decision. A majority of the court of appeals agreed that the record in King’s case was “troubling.” But it nonetheless held that King had not met the high burden, established by AEDPA, of showing that no reasonable judge could agree with the trial court’s conclusion that Johnson had justifiably struck the six remaining Black jurors. And barring any statements in its decision that the Georgia Supreme Court explicitly ignored Johnson’s “soliloquy” criticizing Batson or other evidence of racial discrimination, the 11th Circuit explained, the court presumably considered all the evidence.

In King v. Emmons, King asks the justices to grant review and reverse the 11th Circuit’s ruling. Indeed, he suggests, the Batson violation is so clear in this case that it would be appropriate for the court to reverse the lower court’s ruling even without additional briefing on the merits and oral argument. Considering all of Johnson’s conduct – his criticism of Batson, the finding that he struck one juror because she was Black, and his striking of nearly 88% of Black jurors in the pool compared to only 8% of white jurors – King writes, “it is unreasonable to conclude anything other than that Batson was violated.”

A list of this week’s featured petitions is below:

Kinzy v. United States
23-578
Issue: Whether a district court can insulate from vacatur a sentence based on an erroneously enhanced Sentencing Guidelines range simply by stating, without explanation, that it would have imposed the same sentence absent the error, or whether, to avoid resentencing, the district court must comply with this court’s clear command in Gall v. United States and Rita v. United States to sufficiently explain why the sentence imposed is warranted even if the Sentencing Guidelines range was wrong.

Medina v. Colorado
23-618
Issue: Whether it is consistent with due process for a court to convict a criminal defendant without finding that the defendant is guilty.

Holcomb v. Stinnie
23-621
Issues: (1) Whether a party must obtain a ruling that conclusively decides the merits in its favor, as opposed to merely predicting a likelihood of later success, to prevail on the merits under 42 U.S.C. § 1988; and (2) whether a party must obtain an enduring change in the parties’ legal relationship from a judicial act, as opposed to a non-judicial event that moots the case, to prevail under Section 1988.

Goede v. AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, LP
23-665
Issue: Whether, where an unemployment applicant’s religious beliefs are independently sufficient to cause her refusal to follow an employer policy, a state can deny her unemployment benefits by holding that philosophical and personal beliefs outweigh her religious beliefs.

King v. Emmons
23-668
Issues: (1) Whether the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision was based on “an unreasonable determination” of the facts under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2); and (2) whether the Georgia Supreme Court “unreasonably applied” this court’s decision in Batson v. Kentucky under Section 2254(d)(1).

Vincent v. Garland
23-683
Issue: Whether the Second Amendment allows the federal government to permanently disarm Melynda Vincent, who has one 15-year-old nonviolent felony conviction for trying to pass a bad check.

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