Court Decision: Court of Appeals Unanimously Rules That Trial Judge's Batson Error Requires Reversal and New Trial

Court of Appeals: People v. Estwick

Court of Appeals Unanimously Rules That Trial Judge’s Batson Error Requires Reversal and New Trial

At Mr. Estwick’s Queens trial, defense counsel established a prima facie case of discrimination with respect to the prosecution’s exercise of a peremptory challenge against an African-American female prospective juror. Instead of the prosecution providing a race-neutral explanation for the peremptory challenge, as the Batson protocol requires, the trial judge volunteered a reason: the prosecution had gotten a “bad vibe” regarding whether the prospective juror’s prior jury service had resulted in an acquittal. Although the assistant district attorney remained silent, the court determined there was “a legitimate race neutral reason” given by the prosecution for the strike.

The Court of Appeals unanimously reversed, declaring this was a “serious departure from the Batson framework” that “was an error of the highest order.” Rather than holding them to their burden, the trial judge “effectively became an advocate for the prosecution.” The Court added that the trial judge’s speculation as to the basis for the peremptory strike was irrelevant and deprived Mr. Estwick of any meaningful way to demonstrate pretext. The conviction was reversed and a new trial ordered.

Martin Sawyer represented Mr. Estwick