Supreme Court upholds capital murder conviction despite minority exclusion from jury

Supreme Court upholds capital murder conviction despite minority exclusion from jury

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] on Thursday reinstated [opinion, PDF] the death sentence of a California man convicted of murder 25 years ago, despite evidence that seven of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges to jurors in the case were race-based. In a 5-4 decision, the majority held in Davis v. Ayala [SCOTUSblog materials] that even though all blacks and Hispanics available to serve on the jury were dismissed by the prosecution in Ayala’s capital murder trial, the error was harmless. The opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, reiterated the high bar a petitioner must overcome in a federal habeas [LII backgrounder] claim to demonstrate that the state court’s error during trial was harmful. The trial judge found the prosecution’s reasons for dismissing the jurors were not raced based, and the court found Ayala failed to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by this procedure. The decision reversed an earlier ruling [text, PDF] by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website].

Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, argues that the trial judge heard the prosecutions reasons for striking the potential black and Hispanic jurors behind closed doors without Ayala and his attorney present, substantially influencing the outcome of the case and and that this should have been enough to demonstrate a harmful error. The court granted certiorari to the case in October and heard oral arguments in March.