Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

Conviction overturned after prosecutor removed potential jurors due to race

Conviction overturned after prosecutor removed potential jurors due to race

The Iowa Court of Appeals overturned a conviction after finding that a Scott County prosecutor’s removal of the only two black people from a jury pool was motivated by race.

In 2015, Marquise Miller, a black man, was convicted and sentenced to up to five years in prison.

Police had said Miller and two others fled a Dillards Department Store after shoplifting.

During jury selection for Miller’s trial, there were two black potential jurors in Miller’s entire jury pool. (Scott County is the third-most populous county in Iowa and whites constitute over 86% of its population.) The trial prosecutor from Scott County Attorney Mike Walton’s office said he used a peremptory strike against one of the black potential jurors because “she indicated she had a negative experience with law enforcement.” That negative experience was when an off-duty police officer ran over her granddaughter with a car — killing her — when driving over 60 mph in a school zone. The appellate court said the prosecutor’s explanation for striking this juror was acceptable on its own.

It was when the prosecutor struck the second black potential juror that it became problematic.

The second potential black juror, when asked her opinion on law enforcement, responded, “They’re okay. There’s always room for improvement,” while adding that one of her husband’s friends was a police officer.

The prosecutor used a peremptory challenge to remove her, as well.

After defense counsel objected, the prosecutor justified his removal of both black women by saying that both expressed negative attitudes towards law enforcement. The trial judge accepted the explanation.

Scott County Attorney Mike Walton

Defense counsel also expressed concerns that there were no other black people on the jury panel. In response, the prosecution argued that the law “does not require a particular demographic on the panel.”

On appeal, the appellate court rejected the prosecutor’s “race neutral” justification for his use of strikes. The court pointed out that “two other nonblack jurors responded with just as negative — if not more negative — responses to the question about law enforcement, and they were not struck.”

“If a prosecutor’s proffered reason for striking a black panelist applies just as well to an otherwise similar nonblack who is permitted to serve,” the appellate court explained, “there is evidence tending to prove purposeful discrimination.” The court concluded:

The side-by-side comparison of the response of the stricken black juror with that of the two nonblack jurors who were eventually empaneled, in addition to the question relied on by the State, undermines the State’s given reason for striking the juror. The “Constitution forbids striking even a single prospective juror for a discriminatory purpose.”

Walton’s office has said that Miller will be retried.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

Kentucky judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for defendants under 21

Robert F. Stephens Courthouse in Fayette County

Kentucky judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for defendants under 21

A Kentucky judge has ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for defendants who committed a murder before they turned 21 years of old.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty is unconstitutional for anyone who committed murder when they were under the age of 18.

Fayette Circuit Court Judge Ernesto Scorsone’s ruling was issued during pre-trial litigation in the case of Travis Bredhold, who is charged with the robbery and murder of Lexington gas station attendant Mukeshbhai Patel in 2013. The crime occurred when Bredhold was 18 years old.

Defense attorneys argued that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty against Bredhold for a crime that occurred when he was still a teenager. The prosecution countered that Roper did not exclude a defendant like Bredhold who was 18 years old at the time of the crime, and there was no “national consensus” with respect to excluding defendants under 21 years old from the risk of the death penalty.

In a detailed order, Scorsone wrote that a psychological assessment provided to the court established “that Mr. Bredhold was about four years behind his peer group in multiple capacities,” and that he “had weaknesses in executive functions, such as attention, impulse control, and mental flexibility.” Scorsone also credited testimony from an expert in adolescent development, who testified during a pre-trial hearing about “the maturational differences” between adolescents (ages 10 to 21) and adults (21 and over). The court noted that “adolescents are more impulsive, more likely to misperceive risk, less able to regulate behavior, more easily emotionally aroused, and, importantly, more capable of change.”

Scorsone emphasized that studies showing the adolescent brain’s “heightened plasticity” — “the ability to change in response to experience” — along with the natural course of development for adolescents make it “difficult to predict future criminality or delinquent behavior from antisocial behavior during the teen years, even among teenagers accused of committing violent crimes.”

Scorsone also reviewed changes in the administration of the death penalty since the Roper decision, concluding that “it appears there is a very clear national consensus trending toward restricting the death penalty, especially in the case where defendants are eighteen (18) to twenty-one (21) years of age.”

“Not only have six more states abolished the death penalty since Roper in 2005, four more have imposed moratoria on executions, and seven more of de factoprohibitions on the execution of defendants eighteen (18) to twenty-one (21),” Scorsone wrote.

“Travis Bredhold was eighteen (18) years and five (5) months old at the time of the alleged crime,” Scorsone wrote. “According to recent scientific studies, Mr. Bredbold fits right into the group experiencing the ‘maturational imbalance,’ during which his system for sensation-seeking, impulsivity, and susceptibility to peer pressure was fully developed, while his system for planning and impulse control lagged behind, unable to override those impulses.”

It will now be up to the office of Fayette County Commonwealth Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn to decide whether to appeal Scorsone’s decision. But an appeal is likely.

More in Explainers

Leon Cannizzaro doth protest too much

Leon Cannizzaro doth protest too much

Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a bar complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel against Leon Cannizzaro, the District Attorney for New Orleans Parish, Louisiana.

The gist of the allegations involve a series of fake subpoenas Cannizzaro’s office was using to coerce people not accused of a crime to come to the DA’s office and submit to interviews, as detailed by The Lens. The subpoenas threatened “fines or imprisonment,” but were not legal documents; they just looked kind of legal to the normal person. Of course, this was the point — to frighten people into compliance.

In the normal course of business, prosecutors can subpoena witnesses, but they must do so through court order. Prosecutors are powerful, but they cannot simply unilaterally decide that someone must testify. They at least need to talk to a judge first. Failure to do so violates local and state law as well as rules of professional conduct.

Of course, Cannizzaro and his staff are prosecutors, so they should know better.

Cannizzaro won’t back down, and, like a bulldog, he pursues his narrow-minded ideal of justice vigorously. But, people are catching onto his tactics. Now, with the revelations of the fake subpoenas, members of the New Orleans City Council are calling for an end to the practice as well as an investigation. “We need to be sure this did not result in any kind of miscarriage of justice,” one councilman told a reporter.

Cannizzaro’s office went through a number of contortions to explain itself. First, Cannizzaro argued that there was nothing wrong with the practice. Then, once it was clear the issue would not go away, his office announced it would stop using the fake subpoenas. But, Cannizzaro has continued to claim that his office cannot (or will not) figure out how often they were used. The ACLU sued and won, so the DA’s office is now compelled to look for this information, at least in some cases. Now this complaint.

But will it stop? New Orleans has a troubled history with wrongful convictions, extremely punitive prison terms, and plain dishonesty. But, thus far, New Orleans prosecutors have not been deterred by lawsuits, wrongful convictions, U.S. Supreme Court scolding, or bar complaints. What will it take?

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

More in Podcasts