TN court rules that prosecutor unconstitutionally excluded a black woman from jury
The Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee ruled recently that District Attorney General Robert Carter’s office improperly use a peremptory challenge during jury selection to prevent a black woman from serving on a jury. As a result, the court threw out Collins’ conviction and sentence.
In 2013, a Drug Task Force in Tennessee’s 17th Judicial District arrested Tommy Lee Collins, Jr. Collins was charged with unlawful firearm possession, evading arrest, reckless endangerment, and possession of marijuana with intent to sell.
During jury selection, the prosecution used one of its peremptory strikes to dismiss “Juror S.” — the only African-American member of the entire jury venire. In response, defense counsel raised a Batson challenge, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision that holds that the Equal Protection Clause prohibits the prosecution from excluding potential jurors based solely upon race. The prosecution sought to justify its decision by claiming its decision was “race-neutral” in that Juror S. said she had “a family problem with drugs. That could be people that have used drugs; that could be people in the distribution of drugs.” Over the defense lawyer’s objection, which included the fact that the prosecutor had not similarly removed any other prospective juror — all of whom were white — who also had a “relative or somebody that has had a drug problem,” the trial judge accepted the prosecution’s assertion.
Collins, who is black, was ultimately convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to eight years in prison.
On direct appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee reversed Collins’ conviction. Rejecting the prosecutor’s explanation, the court wrote: “In any event, the record reflects that the prosecutor excused the only prospective African-American juror, that the trial court asked for a race-neutral explanation, and that the prosecutor did not dispute the allegation that he did not challenge other jurors for the reason he challenged Juror S. The prosecutor’s explanation for challenging Juror S. was not consistent with his treatment of other similarly situated jurors.”
Because improperly excluding a single juror is grounds for reversal, Collins’ case now returns to Bedford County Circuit Court, where he faces a potential retrial.
Particularly notable about the court’s ruling is that it is believed to be the first criminal case reversed by a Tennessee appellate court because of racial discrimination in jury selection.