People v. Knight

Decision Date21 July 2005
Docket NumberDocket No. 124996,Docket No. 9,Docket No. 125101. Calendar,Docket No. 10.
Citation701 N.W.2d 715,473 Mich. 324
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Jerome L. KNIGHT, Defendant-Appellant. People of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Gregory M. Rice, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Michael A. Cox, Attorney General, Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General, Kym L. Worthy, Prosecuting Attorney, and Timothy A. Baughman, Chief of Research, Training, and Appeals, and Thomas M. Chambers, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, Detroit, MI, for the people.

Gerald M. Lorence, Detroit, MI and Gary Supanich, Ann Arbor, MI, for Jerome L. Knight.

Neil J. Leithauser, Royal Oak, MI, for Gregory M. Rice.


In these consolidated appeals, we are called upon to clarify our Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986), jurisprudence and provide guidance to our lower courts. Specifically, this Court must decide whether the trial court in these cases determined that Batson had been violated; namely, we must discern whether the trial court concluded that the prosecutor exercised peremptory challenges to exclude certain prospective jurors from the jury pool on the basis of race. On the basis of our reading of the voir dire transcripts, we hold that no Batson violation existed in this case and the trial judge neither explicitly nor implicitly found that the prosecutor purposefully discriminated in the exercise of three peremptory challenges. Having reviewed the whole record and the fair inferences to be drawn from it, we cannot conclude that the trial judge implicitly found that the prosecutor purposefully discriminated. Instead, the trial judge's ambiguous statements were driven by her goal of ensuring a racially mixed jury, not concern with determining whether the prosecutor's asserted reasons for exercising peremptory challenges were a pretext. Indeed, the trial judge's only clear statement reflected her finding that neither the prosecutor nor defense counsel had engaged in racially discriminatory behavior. Accordingly, we affirm defendants' convictions.

I. Factual Background

Defendant Knight and codefendant Rice were charged with first-degree murder, M.C.L. § 750.316, stemming from the shooting death of defendant Knight's former girlfriend. Codefendant Rice was also charged with one count of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, M.C.L. § 750.227b. The prosecutor's theory was that defendant Knight had unsuccessfully tried to hire someone to kill his former girlfriend. After his initial efforts failed, according to the prosecutor, defendant Knight bailed codefendant Rice out of jail in exchange for codefendant Rice's killing the former girlfriend. Defendant Knight and codefendant Rice were tried jointly before the same jury.

During the third day of jury selection, defense counsel initially objected to the prosecutor's use of peremptory challenges, claiming that the prosecutor was attempting to exclude African-American veniremembers. Defense counsel expressed particular dissatisfaction with the prosecutor's reason for dismissing veniremember nine, which was that a member of veniremember nine's family had been convicted of rape. Defense counsel then demonstrated his misunderstanding of Batson by responding, "I don't believe that whether or not there is assaultive [sic] and battery involved in that particular person's family is a basis on which to exclude someone when you already have a pattern. I have noticed this pattern since day one of the jury trial. That's why seventy-five percent of the exclusions have been black."

The prosecutor immediately interjected that she had excluded three African-American veniremembers and four Caucasian veniremembers and offered race-neutral reasons for excluding the African-American veniremembers. The trial judge stated, "There have been four whites excluded, exempted by the prosecution and three blacks. So just based on that I don't see a Batson problem." Defense counsel then commented on the racial composition of the jury pool, stating, "If you have seventy-five percent white prospective jurors, Your Honor, and twenty-five percent black prospective jurors, now the schedule has turned and that's exactly what we've had in three days of jury selection." Defense counsel appeared to argue here not for the racially neutral exercise of peremptory challenges, but for the exercise of challenges in proportion to the overall racial division of the array. The trial judge then found no Batson violation, stating:

But that's not the prosecution or the defense's fault that we are getting largely white jurors. If that's an issue, that's another issue, and that can be dealt with another way.
But in this particular case and this particular matter, I do not see a pattern of the prosecution improperly excluding African American males, because they've only excluded one, or African American females where two have been excluded.
I think the reasons are acceptable. So I don't see a problem there.
There's still right now, I don't know if this is going to end up being our jurors, but there are quite a few-I don't know who's left up there. But the fact that the composition of the jury panel is largely white, it's like I said, another issue. And that can be dealt with in another way.
I deny the motion that the prosecution has improperly excluding [sic] minorities from the jury panel. [Emphasis added.]

The court then recessed for lunch. After lunch, the prosecutor dismissed three African-American women, veniremembers Bonner, Johnson, and Jones. Defense counsel did not contemporaneously object to the exercise of peremptory challenges against veniremembers Bonner and Johnson. Defense counsel objected only to the dismissal of veniremember Jones, contending that the prosecutor was attempting to exclude black females in violation of Batson.1 He pointed out that the prosecutor had exercised three consecutive challenges against African-American women. Without waiting for the trial judge's ruling regarding whether a prima facie showing of purposeful discrimination had been made, the prosecutor immediately provided race-neutral reasons for the three exclusions, although defense counsel had not objected to the challenges regarding veniremembers Bonner and Johnson. The prosecutor stated that she dismissed veniremember Bonner because Bonner was a close relative of two persons convicted of first-degree murder. She dismissed veniremember Johnson because of Johnson's body language, the tone of her voice, and the hesitant look she gave when she stated that she could be fair. Finally, she dismissed veniremember Jones because Jones was a professional woman who had a daughter close in age to the victim. The prosecutor noted that Jones's daughter was not "similarly situated" to the victim and that Jones might compare and contrast the lifestyles of the victim and her daughter.

The trial judge responded by stating, "Just before we recessed for lunch, I thought that it was very clear that we didn't have a problem here. But now I think we are getting very close to a sensitive issue." The trial judge rejected the prosecutor's reasons for dismissing veniremember Johnson, but stated that she had not objected to Johnson's dismissal because defense counsel had not objected. The trial judge did not accept the prosecutor's reasons for dismissing veniremember Jones:

The same thing with Miss Jones. I do not see a reason other than-I mean, it seems to me for the prosecution to say, she has a daughter the same age as the victim, that would seem to work in the prosecution's favor, just in terms of thinking in the jury selection. So I don't accept that.
* * *
I do see that we are getting close, and there are, I don't know[,] two or three minority jurors left on this panel. So I think we are getting close to a serious issue here.
I wish that somebody had said something about keeping Miss Jones and Miss Johnson. And then we address this matter because I probably would not have excused either one of them. [Emphasis added.]

Defense counsel interrupted the trial judge at that point to clarify that Jones was the last veniremember struck and that he objected to the exclusion of Jones. Despite defense counsel's comment, the trial judge stated, "[I]f an objection had been made as far as Miss Johnson and Miss Jones[,] I probably would have addressed it. And I tend to think I probably would have kept them on the jury."2

The prosecutor then stated that dismissal was appropriate as long as she advanced race-neutral reasons for the dismissal. The trial judge replied that she had to either accept or reject the prosecutor's "neutral" reasons. She further stated, "And I'm not, I'm saying that I think we're getting close to a sensitive issue here on Jones and Johnson. That's all I'm saying. I'm making my record too."

The trial judge twice referred to getting close to a "sensitive issue." We do not think this language reflects that the sensitive issue was purposeful discrimination. Instead, we believe the sensitive issue was the looming absence of minorities in the array and on the petit jury.

The prosecutor acknowledged the trial judge's comments. She immediately raised a reverse-Batson challenge to defense counsel's exercise of peremptory challenges to exclude five female Caucasian veniremembers and one male Caucasian veniremember. Defense counsel again demonstrated his misunderstanding of Batson by stating:

I would indicate to the Court, Your Honor, that sister counsel fails to recognize that there are at least four white women that are on the jury.
* * *
I don't believe with regards to the fact that they happen to be white women, I think the Court also has to recognize that the greatest number of people that have come through that jury, as potential jurors, have been in fact white people.3

Defense counsel then requested that the trial judge first make a...

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