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Peremptory Challenges and National Origin: Watson V. Ricks

By Hurwitz, Mark S. | Justice System Journal, May 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Peremptory Challenges and National Origin: Watson V. Ricks


Hurwitz, Mark S., Justice System Journal


During voir dire in criminal trials, prosecutors and defense attorneys can challenge potential jurors to remove them from the jury pool. These challenges can be based on cause when a juror displays bias or incompetence. Attorneys also can use a limited, specified number of peremptory challenges to remove jurors for any or no reason, without showing cause. Until recently, there were few if any restrictions on how peremptory challenges could be employed. However, the Supreme Court in Botson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 ( 1986), held that the Fourteenth Amendment's equalprotection clause prohibits prosecutors from using peremptory challenges to exclude jurors based on their race. In subsequent cases, the Supreme Court applied the Batson rule to prohibit peremptory challenges based on ethnic origin, Hemandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352 (1991), and gender, J.E.B. v. Alabama, 511 U.S. 127 (1994). The Supreme Court has never considered whether Batson prevents peremptory challenges based on national origin. This issue arose in Watson v. Ricks, and in his unpublished report and recommendation to District Judge William H. Pauley III of the Southern District of New York, Magistrate Judge James C. Francis IV concluded that the Batson rule additionally prevented peremptory challenges based on national origin. He thus recommended that the petitioner's writ of habeas corpus be granted.

The Supreme Court has determined that when a Batson objection is raised, the following procedure takes place:

First, a defendant must make a prima facie showing that a peremptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race. second, if that showing has been made, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question. Third, in light of the parties' submissions, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination. Miiler-Ei v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 328-29 (2003), citing Batson, 476 U.S. at 96-98.

Mark Watson, a West Indian Jamaican, was indicted in 1999 by the state of New York for a series of felonies. At his trial, during voir dire the prosecutor employed peremptory challenges to remove all five potential jurors who were born in the West Indian countries of Jamaica and Trinidad. Watson raised a Batson objection, claiming these peremptory challenges were unconstitutionally based on national origin. The trial judge denied Watson's objection on the basis that West Indians were not a cognizable group under Batson and that any prejudice against West Indians was based on their race. As there were African-Americans on the jury, the trial judge said that Watson had not made a prima-facie showing of racial discrimination, and thus under Batson the prosecution was not required to defend its peremptory challenges as neutral. Voir dire continued after this ruling.

Watson was convicted of most of the charges against him and received an indeterminate sentence of twenty-five to fifty years. Watson appealed, and New York's Appellate Division unanimously affirmed his conviction. People v. Watson, 771 N.Y.S.Zd 639 ( 1st Dep't 2004). The New York Court of Appeals subsequently denied Watson's application for leave to appeal. 814 N.E.2d 480 (N.Y. 2004) (table). Watson then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the federal district court in the Southern District of New York, contending that the prosecutor's use of peremptory challenges violated the Fourteenth Amendment by improperly removing West Indians from the jury based on national origin. More particularly, Watson argued, as he had in state court, that the trial court erred in holding that West Indians are not a cognizable group under Batson and in finding that Watson failed to make a primafacie showing of discrimination.

As a threshold matter, Magistrate Judge Francis stated that pursuant to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. §2254(d), a federal court may issue a writ of habeas corpus "only if the state court unreasonably applied governing Supreme Court precedent" (Recommendation, p.

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