Third Circuit Ruling Reverses Judge in Batson Challenge Case

, The Legal Intelligencer

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Jury box..Photo by Jason Doiy.2-9-11.054-2011

The Third Circuit reversed the writ of habeas corpus granted to a man who alleged the prosecution had been racially motivated when it tossed black jurors before his trial in 2001.

Nine of the jurors at that state-court trial were white, three were black.

Because the federal district judge who granted Wayne Coombs a writ of habeas corpus had accepted the magistrate judge's credibility assessment for the prosecutor who had tried the 2001 case, but still held that the prosecutor's race-neutral explanation was pretextual, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed.

"The commonwealth contends that the district court erred in rejecting the finding of the magistrate judge on a factual question without holding a new evidentiary hearing," Senior Judge Jane Richards Roth said in her opinion on behalf of the three-judge panel. "We agree."

In that 2001 trial, Coombs was convicted of nine counts of robbery. That conviction came two months after his first trial ended with a hung jury. He was later sentenced to 59 to 160 years in prison.

At his sentencing in early 2002, Coombs raised a Batson challenge, so named for the U.S. Supreme Court's 1986 opinion in Batson v. Kentucky, which ruled that a prosecutor had violated the Sixth and 14th amendments by dismissing all of the potential black jurors before a trial.

During jury selection, Coombs had raised several Batson challenges and the prosecutor had offered race-neutral reasons for striking those jurors. As to Juror No. 1, though, the prosecutor had said, "I just didn't like him, your honor, I don't really have a sound reason. It was the first strike I used. I don't know, just the way he was looking at me. If that's a reason it's justified, but your honor found there's no pattern. I mean I just didn't like him and he didn't check off many boxes, but I went with my hunch, as your honor said yesterday," according to the opinion.

"The court responded, 'OK. All right. Let's go. Are we ready to start?' Defense counsel then asked if the court was accepting the prosecutor's reasons and denying the Batson challenges. The court confirmed that it was," Roth said in her opinion.

After sentencing, Coombs filed a direct appeal with the Pennsylvania Superior Court with the Batson claim.

The Superior Court denied the claim without reaching the merits and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Coombs' leave to appeal.

He then filed the petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. That started the case on its first trip up to the Third Circuit.

A magistrate judge had recommended denial of the petition, which was adopted by a district judge.

On appeal, the Third Circuit had held "that the district court failed to properly conduct step three of the Batson analysis, which requires the court to show 'engagement with the evidence' to determine whether the prosecutor's proffered race-neutral reason for the strike was pretextual," Roth said of the appeals court's earlier opinion. Since the district court hadn't done that, the case was remanded for an evidentiary hearing.

That started the current phase of the case.

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