Friday, September 30, 2016

State v. Meeks

Opinion handed down August 23, 2016

In an effort to maximize judicial efficiency at the trial court level, race-neutral explanations for defending a Batson challenge exercised by defense counsel are seemingly becoming mere formalities – issues which are left for appellate courts to flesh out.  While juries are typically notorious (and justifiably so) for wanting trials to be more expeditious, prosecutors and defense counsel should expend all of their efforts in voir dire in order to obtain justice at the trial level for the criminal defendant.

I.  Facts and Holding

On July 4, 2012, Roscoe M. Meeks accosted a Mexican American whom he claimed “took his girlfriend.”[1]  When the man denied the allegation and turned to walk away, Meeks unloaded a gun from his person and placed the gun against the back of the man’s head.[2]  The man attempted to try and take the gun away from Meeks, and during this struggle, Meeks shot the man in the lower abdomen.[3]  When the man attempted to retreat, Meeks shot him a second time.[4]  Meeks was tried for first-degree assault and armed criminal action in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County.[5]
During voir dire, Meeks’s defense counsel asked the venire whether anyone would have difficulty presuming that Meeks was innocent.[6]  The response of Venireperson A struck a chord with the rest of the venire.  Venireperson A responded:
Statistically speaking, we live in the seventh most dangerous city in the United States.  And I hate to go into race here.  But statistically, we’re in St. Louis; he’s black.  There’s more into it, but I don’t know those facts.  But it’s more than likely he did something.[7]

            After this comment was made, there was an outcry in the venire.[8]  The defense counsel responded: “I don’t want to open a can of worms the Judge doesn’t want to open at ten to five with a few things said there.”[9]  One of the female venirepersons, whom the prosecutor assumed was Venireperson C, responded with “let’s open that can.”[10]  Neither the prosecution nor defense, however, knew which venireperson made that statement.[11]
After voir dire, the prosecutor moved to strike Venireperson C.[12]  Meeks responded by exercising a Batson[13] challenge against the prosecutor’s peremptory strike of Venireperson C.[14]  Venireperson C was an African American woman who presumably made the let’s-open-that-can remark in response to racist statements made by Venireperson A.[15]  The prosecutor reasoned that since the row where the outcry came from had already mostly been struck for cause, and since Venireperson D would likely be struck by the defense (Venireperson D is of Mexican descent), then she would choose to strike Venireperson C.[16]  The circuit court ruled that the prosecutor had offered a racially neutral explanation for using her last peremptory strike against Venireperson C.[17]  After the circuit court overruled this challenge, the final jury was selected and consisted of one African-America juror, ten white jurors, and one juror who declined to state his race.[18]  Meeks’s case went to trial, and he was convicted on both counts.[19]
II.  Legal Background
A Batson challenge has long been recognized as a procedural safeguard used during voir dire to ensure equal protection under the law by prohibiting prosecutors from using their peremptory strikes on a juror because of his or her race.[20]  In 1986, the Supreme Court in Batson articulated a three-step, burden-shifting process to be used to challenge a peremptory strike on the basis of race.[21]  For the first step, the defendant must raise a Batson challenge with regard to one or more specific venirepersons struck by the State and be able to identify the racial group to which the person or persons belong.[22]  The second step is for the court to require the State to present “reasonably specific and clear race-neutral explanations” for why he or she is exercising the strike.[23]  If the prosecutor is able to present a reasonable explanation for the strike, the burden then shifts to the defendant to prove that the strikes were merely pretextual and were, in fact, racially motivated.[24]  
A variety of factors are analyzed by courts in order to determine whether the defendant has met the burden of proof.  Ultimately, the main consideration should be the “plausibility of the prosecutor’s explanations in light of the totality of the facts and circumstances surrounding the case.”[25]  In addition, several other factors can evince pretext, including: (1) the existence of similarly situated white jurors who were not struck, (2) the degree of logical relevance between the proffered explanation and the case to be tried in terms of the kind of crime charged, (3) the potential punishment if the defendant is convicted, and (4) the prosecutor’s demeanor or statements during voir dire.[26]
III.  Instant Decision

On appeal from the Court of Appeals from the Eastern District of Missouri, the Supreme Court of Missouri analyzed the case under the clear error standard of review.[27]  In analyzing the Batson challenge under the three-step, burden-shifting process, the court solely turned its attention to the second step – whether the prosecutor offered a racially neutral explanation for the strike of Venireperson C.[28] 
The court noted that context is especially important when determining whether the prosecutor’s explanation was genuine or pretextual.[29]  The prosecutor had hoped to strike all of the members of the row who had unpleasant reactions to the statements made by Venireperson A but had expended all but one of her strikes.[30]  Thus, to ensure that neither Venireperson C nor D would serve on the jury, she had to choose one to strike (and she assumed that the defendant would strike Venireperson D, given that Venireperson D was of the same race as the victim in the case).[31]  The prosecutor’s reasoning for striking Venireperson C was so she would not “start out the case where there is a person of Mexican descent and African-American descent upset about racial issues.”[32]  The court reasoned that the prosecutor’s explanation might have been sufficient in explaining a strike of all the venirepersons in that row but that her reasoning was insufficient as to explain why she struck Venireperson C instead of D.[33]  Further, the court emphasized that the prosecutor’s second explanation was also unable to satisfy the burden of offering a race-neutral explanation under the second step, because the prosecutor in her second explanation explicitly referred to Venireperson C’s race.[34]  For these reasons, the Supreme Court of Missouri vacated Meeks’s convictions and remanded his case for a new trial.[35]
IV.  Comment

It almost seems incredulous that the circuit court would accept the prosecutor’s explanation as “race-neutral” when, in doing so, she explicitly referred to the races of both Venirepersons C and D.   It is not difficult to imagine why the prosecutor wanted to strike someone who apparently made an impassioned remark following highly racially charged statements.  And it is not difficult to see why the judge might be sympathetic to the prosecutor, who was aware that someone made the remark, but because of either lack of time or ability – or an expectation that the court would accept whatever purportedly race-neutral explanation was offered – the prosecutor failed to determine which venireperson made the statement.  However, the absence of even an attempt to pinpoint the specific juror was a significant contributing factor in the Supreme Court of Missouri’s overruling the circuit court’s finding.
Earlier in voir dire, after Venireperson A made the racist statements, the prosecutor heard someone yell “let’s open that can” yet failed to “spin around” in time to see who made the statement.[36]  While it would have been difficult to initially pinpoint who made the remark, if the prosecutor had the means and the tact in which she could decipher who specifically made that remark, it is possible that she would have succeeded in striking Venireperson C.  This is because earlier the prosecutor argued making that specific statement was different than someone simply being offended by the comment.[37]  So, it is likely that if the prosecutor had ascertained that Venireperson C made the remark and then used that explanation to defend a Batson challenge, then she may have succeeded on her strike.
In conclusion, in order to prevent criminal defendants from lengthy appellate processes, which may or may not result in a vacated conviction, extra time and effort should be expended in the voir dire process in order for prosecutors and defense counsel alike to make their peremptory strikes as accurate and race-neutral as possible.  
-       Sheaffer Fennessey

[1] State v. Meeks, No. SC 95221, 2016 WL 4443993, at *1 (Mo. Aug. 23, 2016).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id. at *3.
[9] Id. at *2.
[10] Id. at *3.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at *2.
[13] See discussion infra Part II.
[14] Meeks, 2016 WL 4443993, at *2.
[15] Id. at *3.
[16] Id. at *2.
[17] Id.
[18] Id. at *3.
[19] Id.
[20] Id. at *4; Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 96–97 (1986).
[21] Meeks, 2016 WL 4443993, at *4 (citing Batson, 476 U.S. at 89).
[22] Id. (quoting State v. Parker, 836 S.W.2d 930, 939 (Mo. 1992) (en banc)).
[23] Id.
[24] Id.
[25] Parker, 836 S.W.2d at 939.
[26] Id. at 939–40.
[27] In reviewing a trial court’s holding on a Batson challenge, the standard of review is clear error.  Meeks, 2016 WL 4443993, at *3 (quoting State v. Marlowe, 89 S.W.3d 464, 470 (Mo. 2002) (en banc)).
[28] Id. at *4.
[29] Id. at *5.
[30] Id.
[31] Id.
[32] Id.
[33] Id.
[34] Id.
[35] Id.
[36] Id. at 3.
[37] Id.