New York Court of Appeals Rules that Unjustified Denial of a Peremptory Challenge Mandates Automatic Reversal
In People v. Hecker, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that a trial court court's mistaken denial of a peremptory challenge mandates automatic reversal and entitles the losing party to a new trial.
During jury selection both sides are allowed an unlimited number of challenges of potential jurors for cause where a prospective juror has a state of mind that is likely to preclude them from rendering an impartial verdict based upon the evidenced adduced at trial. In addition, under section 270.25 of New Yorks' Criminal Procedure Law, both parties are also allowed a limited number of peremptory challenges that allow them to remove a potential juror for no reason at all. However, there are limitations imposed when removing jurors. In Batson v. Kentucky, the United States Supreme Court formulated a three step test to assess whether peremptory challenges were used to exclude potential jurors on the basis of race. Hecker, along with its three (3) companion cases, addressed the application of the Batson test. When a Batson challenge is raised, the moving party first bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case that the nonmoving party has intentionally used a peremptory challenges to discriminate against a cognizable group. Once a prima facie case has been established, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to offer a facially neutral explanation for each suspect challenge. Finally, the burden shifts back to the moving party to prove purposeful discrimination, and the trial court must determine whether the proffered reasons are pretextual.
In Hecker, the trial court ruled that defense counsel had removed two (2) jurors on the basis of race after she used two of her peremptory challenges to remove jurors of Asian descent. On appeal, the Court of Appeals concluded that the record did not support the lower court's finding that the defense attorney had used her peremptory challenges in a pretextual way. The Court reasoned that one of the prospective jurors had expressed reservations about the presumption of innocence, which would lead any defense lawyer to have concerns regarding that particular juror. In addition, counsel did not have the opportunity to ask the potential juror many questions because the court intervened in her questioning and when the court had concluded its own line of questioning, the court allotted time limit for voir dire had expired. The court imposed time limit also prevented counsel from questioning the other prospective juror and making an informed decision.
Accordingly, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Supreme Court's erroneous Batsonruling mandated automatic reversal and entitled the defendant to a new trial, as the defendant was deprived his statutory right to exercise peremptory challenges under New York's Criminal Procedure Law. The Court held that "the unjustified denial of a peremptory challenge violates CPL 270.25(2) and requires reversal without regard to harmless error."
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