The Supreme Court today affirms the death penalty in People v. Miles for a 1992 rape, robbery, and murder.  In Justice Joshua Groban’s first death penalty opinion, the court rejects a host of appellate arguments.  But it is the handling of a Batson/Wheeler issue that draws a dissent from Justice Goodwin Liu, a topic about which he has frequently written separately in the past (see here).

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Batson decision and the California Supreme Court’s Wheeler decision establish that it’s unconstitutional for an attorney to racially discriminate in peremptorily challenging prospective jurors.

In today’s case, which involved the rape and murder of a white woman by an African-American man, the court gives deference to the superior court’s finding that the prosecutor’s stated reasons for excusing two African-American male prospective jurors were legitimate and it concludes the reasons “were plausible and supported by the record.”  It does, however, say that “the issue [is] close” as to one of the challenged prospective jurors.  Over 50 pages of the majority’s 137-page opinion is devoted to the Batson/Wheeler argument.

Justice Liu’s dissent focuses on the dismissal of one of the two prospective jurors.  He says “the record shows that each of the prosecutor’s stated reasons for striking [the juror] was implausible or unsupported by the facts.”  One of those reasons was that the prospective juror reported not being upset by the O.J. Simpson verdict, which was rendered three years before the defendant’s trial.  Justice Liu says the prosecutor’s reliance on that fact “seems like playing with fire” because, when the defendant was tried, “it would have been hard to think of any recent case in the American justice system more sensational and racially polarizing than the Simpson trial.”

Justice Liu revisits a theme he’s advanced before when he notes the court today “extends its record of not having found Batson error involving the peremptory strike of a black juror in more than 30 years” and he says, “It is past time to ask whether the Batson framework, as applied by this court, must be rethought in order to fulfill the constitutional mandate of eliminating racial discrimination in jury selection.”