Batson is Alive and Well in New York State

The New York Law Journal reports:

Excluding a juror based on skin tone, like race, is prohibited under the New York Constitution, the state’s highest court has ruled [log-in required] in a case hailed by civil rights groups and affinity bar associations as an important decision.

The Court of Appeals decided unanimously that the way the jury was selected for a robbery trial in Queens Supreme Court violated the protections preventing the exclusion of jurors solely based on their race, color, creed or religion, as declared by the U.S. Supreme Court in Batson v. Kentucky , 476 US 79 (1986).

The court said in its Dec. 22 ruling that it was the first time it has explicitly stated that “race” and “color” are not the same in regards to juror bias purposes, and that a person’s dark skin tone could be a basis of cognizable discrimination under New York’s constitution and civil rights statutes.

“Defendant argues that ‘contrary to the people’s position, dark skin color is a cognizable class and, indeed, must be one unless the established protections of Batson are to be eviscerated by allowing challenges based on skin color to serve as a proxy for those based on race,'” Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam wrote in People v. Bridgeforth, 207. “We agree with defendant.”

The case involved what the court found was the illegal exclusion of a dark-skinned woman who said she was born in India from the jury in the Bridgeforth case in 2012.

The court said Queens prosecutors gave the necessary race-neutral reasons for excluding four African-American jurors from the jury, but that the prosecutor could not remember why he also struck the Indian-born woman. The trial court did not pursue the matter further and improperly allowed the prosecutor to use a peremptory challenge to exclude the Indian juror.

Appealing his conviction, defendant Joseph Bridgeforth argued that the woman, because of her dark skin, was part of a constitutionally cognizable class that is protected under the equal protection clause, and that the prosecution’s striking of her was illegal under Batson.

The Court of Appeals reversed Bridgeforth’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

The Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at the Seattle University School of Law, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of 20 civil rights organizations and a group of 32 law school professors in the case, praised the decision.

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