Eleventh Circuit Rejects Deathrow Inmate’s Assertion That Court Clearly Erred in Determining That Alabama Prosecutor’s Jury Selection Decisions Were Not Racially Discriminatory

In Madison v. Comm’r, Ala. Dep’t of Corr., No. 13-12348 (11th Cir. 2014), the Eleventh Circuit held that the District Court did not clearly err when it decided that the Mobile County Prosecutor’s voir dire selections in a capital murder trial were race-neutral under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S. Ct. 1712 (1986). Batson holds that the “use of peremptory challenges to exclude people from the petit jury based on their race, as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” 476 U.S. at 96-98, 106 S. Ct. at 1723-24.

Vernon Madison is an African American who has been tried and convicted three times for killing a white police officer in Mobile, Alabama. His first conviction, for which he was sentenced to death, was set aside as a result of a Batson violation, and his second conviction was reversed because the prosecution’s expert testified to facts not in evidence. Mr. Madison was subsequently tried for a third time and found guilty of capital murder. The trial judge disregarded the jury’s 8-4 recommendation that Madison be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and condemned him to death.

Mr. Madison filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Southern District of Alabama claiming that the prosecution engaged in purposeful discrimination and was granted an evidentiary hearing. At the evidentiary hearing, the defendant’s witness list and the prosecution’s “jury strike list” were admitted into evidence. The jury strike list, which identified jurors’ occupations, and handwritten notes from voir dire indicated the prosecutor’s apparently race-neutral reasons for peremptorily striking six of thirteen qualified black jurors. Under Batson, where an inference of racial discrimination has been rebutted by race-neutral justifications for peremptory strikes, the trial court must determine whether the party opposing the strike has shown purposeful racial discrimination. Johnson v. California, 542 U.S. 162, 168, 125 S. Ct. 2410, 2416 (2005). The District Court subsequently ruled that Mr. Madison had not proved purposeful discrimination and denied his petition.

On appeal, Madison contended that the district court’s holding should be reviewed de novo, contrary to Eleventh Circuit precedent indicating that the more deferential “clear error” standard should be applied. Citing the Supreme Court in Hernandez v. New York, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the “clear error” standard, noting that, “the trial court’s decision on the ultimate question of discriminatory intent represents a finding of fact of the sort accorded great deference on appeal.” 500 U.S. 352, 364 (1991).

As such, Mr. Madison had the burden of proving purposeful discrimination by a preponderance of the evidence, and attempted to meet this standard by showing that that prosecution’s race-neutral justifications were pretextual. However, the Eleventh Circuit determined that the district court’s interpretation of the totality of the evidence was “plausible.” It concluded that, even though it may also be plausible to view the same evidence as indicating purposeful discrimination, “[w]here there are two permissible views of the evidence, the factfinder’s choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous.” Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, N.C., 470 U.S. 564, 547, 105 S. Ct. 1504, 5011 (1985).

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