Case of the Week

Inmate Says Prosecutor Excluded Juror Based On Race

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Glenn W. Falk of New Haven Legal Assistance Association

The Law Tribune previews an important or interesting case most weeks when the state Appellate Court or state Supreme Court are in session.

Case: State v. Michael Edwards

Court: Connecticut Supreme Court

Date: Monday, Dec. 9

Time: 10 a.m.

Attorneys: Kathryn Bare; Glenn Falk

Summary: A man convicted of assaulting a correction officer claims he didn't get a fair trial because the prosecutor used a peremptory challenge on a potential juror because the woman appeared to be African American and prosecutors cannot exclude potential jurors solely on account of their race.

Background: Michael Edwards is serving a 50-year prison sentence for murder after being convicted in Hartford Superior Court in 1996. He is doing his time at Corrigan Correctional Institution in Montville.

On Sept. 20, 2010, David Peck, a correction officer, opened Edwards' cell door so he could retrieve the inmate's lunch tray. As Peck turned his back to Edwards in order to open the door to the next cell, the guard felt a blow to the back of the head, causing him to lose his balance and momentarily lose his vision. Peck then felt a second punch to the back of his head. Another officer called out for help and Peck was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a bruise and neck sprain.

Edwards' motive, according to court documents, was to get transferred out of the Corrigan prison. A prison camera captured the entire incident, which was played for the jury at Edwards' assault trial.

In 2011, Edwards, an African American, was convicted of the assault and sentenced to nine additional years in prison, which were to be tacked onto the existing 50-year sentence on the murder conviction.

During jury selection for the assault trial, a potential juror who appeared to be African American, wrote "human" on the line of a questionnaire given to potential jurors asking their race. During voir dire, Senior State's Attorney Thomas DeLillo said to the woman: "You indicated that… when you wrote down race, you wrote human. Why did you do that?"

The woman responded by stating: "Because that is the race I belong to."

DeLillo then said "OK. Understood," and used a peremptory challenge.

The prosecutor stated that he found this answer to be odd and that he did not think that someone who would give such an answer would be appropriate to serve as a juror.

The defense lawyer objected and said he might have written "human" on the questionnaire too. Superior Court Judge Barbara Jongbloed, however, agreed with the prosecutor and said she found the woman's response "somewhat unusual" and the peremptory challenge "nondiscriminatory" in nature. The judge further did not feel that there was a pattern on the part of the state of excluding all prospective jurors of the same race.

A 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Batson v. Kentucky held that prosecutors cannot challenge potential jurors solely on account of their race.

Edwards, through his appointed appellate lawyer, Glenn Falk, has appealed the trial judge's ruling on the juror. Falk argues that the state's use of a peremptory challenge to exclude an otherwise qualified juror on the basis of her answer to the race question on the juror questionnaire form deprived Edwards of his right to equal protection of the law.

Falk claims that the trial court improperly found that the state had a race-neutral, nondiscriminatory reason for the peremptory challenge and failed to recognize that mixed-race persons sometimes choose not to identify themselves by standard racial categories.

Additionally, Falk, an attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance Association, argues that public policy concerns should dictate the reversal of the judge's decisions.

"What kind of message will it send to young people in Connecticut if they are excluded from an important right and responsibility of citizenship because of how they describe their race in the juror questionnaire?" wrote Falk. "What kind of message will it send to defendants, many of whom are of diverse racial heritage too?... The judgment of conviction should be vacated and the case remanded for a new trial, not only for the integrity of the particular trial but also for the perceived fairness of the judicial system as a whole."

Assistant State's Attorney Kathryn Bare argues that the peremptory challenge was proper and race neutral.

"It was [the woman's] idiosyncratic answer to the race question, and not [her] race that triggered the prosecutor's exercise of a peremptory challenge," wrote Bare. "Contrary to the defendant's assertions, the prosecutor did articulate his rationale for the challenge and why the answer caused him concern: although he had picked numerous juries, he never had seen anyone answer the question in the way that [the woman] did, which stood out as a red flag to him. He found it unusual and the trial court agreed."

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