July 14, 2016
Supreme Court’s order to hear another Batson case suggests earlier death penalty affirmance is at risk
In a habeas corpus proceeding (In re Williams), the Supreme Court yesterday issued an order to show cause why relief should not be granted “on the ground that the prosecutor exercised peremptory challenges against prospective jurors with racially discriminatory intent.” The order is significant not only because Batson issues have divided the court before, but also because the court three years ago rejected the same prisoner’s Batson claims in his direct appeal from a death penalty judgment.
In People v. Williams (2013) 56 Cal.4th 630, the court affirmed the death sentence, finding no error in the trial court’s denial of objections to the prosecution’s peremptory challenges of 5 African-American women prospective jurors, despite the judge saying, “I have found that the black women are very reluctant to impose the death penalty.” Justices Kathryn Werdegar and Goodwin Liu dissented, Justice Liu stating that the majority’s “deference [to the trial court] in these circumstances all but drains the constitutional protection against discrimination in jury selection of any meaningful application.”
Two of the four members of the People v. Williams majority — Justices Joyce Kennard and Marvin Baxter — have since retired. If their replacements — Justices Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra Kruger — agree with Justices Werdegar and Liu on the Batson issue, yesterday’s order to show cause could be considered a de facto transition rehearing grant, similar to when Justices Cuéllar and Kruger voted with Werdegar and Liu to grant rehearing in People v. Grimes.