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Lower court applied incorrect standard in determining whether there was purposeful discrimination in striking black juror

In Adkins v. Alabama Department of Corrections, the petitioner, Adkins, was tried and convicted of first degree murder of a Caucasian woman. Adkins is also Caucasian. At the jury selection of his trial, the state exercised nine of its 24 peremptory strikes to remove nine of eleven black potential jurors. Adkins struck one of the two remaining black jurors and ultimately only one black juror served on the jury. At the time of the trial in 1988, the rule in Alabama was that a white defendant lacked standing to challenge the state’s exercise of peremptory strikes to remove black jurors from the panel. For this reason there was no objection from the defense nor was there a proffer of reasons by the prosecutor for striking the nine black jurors. The conviction was affirmed and he was sentenced to death. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. While his case was on appeal in the Alabama courts, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Powers v. Ohio that a defendant may object to race-based exclusions of jurors through peremptory challenges whether or not the defendant and the excluded juror share the same races. Adkins included a Batson challenge to his appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, which remanded the case to the trial court for a Batson hearing. At the hearing, the prosecutor proffered reasons for striking each of the nine black jurors. The reason given for striking one juror which is the issue in this case, the prosecutor said, “he answered during the voir dire that he knew about the case and because he was also single.” It turned out the potential juror was married and the trial directed the state attorney to supplement the Batson hearing by providing an affidavit explaining his contention that the juror was single. The prosecutor gave as his reason that he believed he was single and their notes do not show he was married. The trial court accepted this explanation and the Alabama courts affirmed the conviction. Adkins filed a 2254 motion in the federal court raising a Batson claim and the district court denied his claim.

The 11th Circuit noted the three-step inquiry to evaluate a prosecutor’s use of peremptory strikes: 1) a defendant must make a prima facie showing that a peremptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race; 2) if that showing is made, the prosecutor must offer a race neutral basis for striking the juror; 3) in light of the parties’ submissions, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination. Here the focus was on how the Alabama state courts applied the third step in Adkins’ appeal. The 11th Circuit noted that in analyzing a defendant’s showing of purposeful discrimination, the trial court must “consider all relevant circumstances” in weighing the prosecutor’s proffered reasons for the strike. The 11th Circuit concluded that the Alabama appellate courts unreasonably applied the third step of Batson when it failed to consider all relevant circumstances bearing on whether Mr. Adkins established purposeful discrimination. The Alabama appellate court did not fully complete the third requirement of Batson by failing to consider the relevant circumstances bearing on the ultimate issue of discriminatory purpose beyond the fact that the prosecutor had proffered race-neutral reasons for its strikes.

The 11th Circuit found that the appellate court did not consider relevant circumstances raised by Adkins such as: 1) the strength of Adkins’ prima facie case; 2) the fact the prosecution explicitly noted the race of every black veniremember (and only black veniremembers) on the jury list the state relied on in jury selection; 3) the fact that specific proffered reasons provided by the prosecutor turned out to be incorrect or contradicted by the record; 4) the trial court did not subject the prosecutor’s affidavit to adversarial testing, and 5) the fact the trial court relied upon facts not part of the record, such as the trial court’s personal experience with the prosecutor (in finding the prosecutor to be credible.)