The Supreme Court today affirms the death sentence in People v. Battle for a 2000 robbery and double kidnapping and murder. The court’s opinion is authored by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar. Justice Goodwin Liu dissents, claiming Batson/Wheeler error, named after U.S. and California Supreme Court decisions holding it unconstitutional for an attorney to racially discriminate in peremptorily challenging prospective jurors.
The defendant, a Black man convicted by an all-white jury of murdering an elderly white couple, objected to the prosecution’s peremptory challenge of one of the prospective Black jurors. The superior court ruled the defendant had not made even a prima facie case of discrimination and thus did not require the prosecutor to justify his challenge.
The Supreme Court recognized that only a “ ‘low threshold’ showing” is needed to make a prima facie case and that “the racial identities at play [in the case] ‘ “raise heightened concerns about whether the prosecutor’s challenge” ’ . . . was ‘ “racially motivated.” ’ ” Nonetheless, the court concluded the defendant’s “showing doesn’t suffice to give rise to an inference that discriminatory intent motivated [the] excusal.”
Justice Liu claims the majority opinion “strays from this standard, if not in word then in deed, by ‘relying on judicial speculation to resolve [a] plausible claim[ ] of discrimination.’ ” He says, “the totality of the relevant facts surrounding [the] excusal gives rise to an inference of discrimination. That does not mean the prosecutor actually had a discriminatory purpose; it simply means that the trial court should have asked the prosecutor to explain why he excused [the prospective juror] and then analyzed the stated reasons.”
As in most death penalty appeals, where the Supreme Court cannot choose whether to hear the case or even limit the issues it will decide, the opinion considers and rejects numerous other arguments for reversal.
Among the quickly dispatched arguments is a challenge to its jurisprudence that the penalty phase jury need not make unanimous findings regarding the existence of particular aggravating factors or findings beyond a reasonable doubt as to the existence of certain aggravating factors. The court has consistently brushed aside these contentions (e.g., here) despite signaling in the pending McDaniel appeal that it will reconsider those rules. (See also here, here, here, and here.) McDaniel was argued last month.