Porter v. Coyne-Fague, 21-1333

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
Writing for the CourtSELYA, Circuit Judge.
Citation35 F.4th 68
Parties Leron PORTER, Petitioner, Appellant, v. Patricia Anne COYNE-FAGUE, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, Respondent, Appellee.
Docket Number21-1333
Decision Date31 May 2022

35 F.4th 68

Leron PORTER, Petitioner, Appellant,
Patricia Anne COYNE-FAGUE, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, Respondent, Appellee.

No. 21-1333

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.

May 31, 2022

Robert B. Mann, with whom Robert B. Mann Law Office was on brief, for appellant.

Christopher R. Bush, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Peter F. Neronha, Attorney General, was on brief, for appellee.

Before Barron, Chief Judge, Selya and Howard, Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

No right is more fundamental to our criminal justice system than the right of a defendant to a fair trial. Over time, the Supreme Court has woven a tapestry of rules designed to protect that right. An important strand in the weave of that tapestry is laid out in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986), under which a defendant may challenge a prosecutor's peremptory strike of a prospective juror as racially discriminatory.

In this habeas case, petitioner-appellant Leron Porter, a Rhode Island state prisoner who is an African-American man convicted of murder and other crimes, claims that the prosecutor transgressed the Batson rule in the course of jury selection. The state supreme court disagreed, see State v. Porter (Porter I ), 179 A.3d 1218, 1226-27 (R.I. 2018), and the petitioner sought federal habeas relief. The United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island held that the prosecutor had crossed the Batson line but that, under the rigorous standards applicable to habeas review, the decision of the state supreme court should not be disturbed. See Porter v. Coyne-Fague (Porter II ), 528 F. Supp. 3d 2, 9-10 (D.R.I. 2021). The petitioner appeals.

This is the rare case in which the prosecutor's explanation for his peremptory strike was not race-neutral on its face and, thus, violated Batson. We hold that the decision of the state supreme court, however viewed, cannot withstand habeas review: that decision rests on either an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, an unreasonable determination of the facts, or both. Consequently, we reverse the decision of the district court and remand with directions that the district court grant the habeas writ, ordering the state courts to vacate the petitioner's convictions and, unless he is tried anew within ninety days of the district court's order, to release him.


We briefly rehearse the relevant facts and travel of the case. We confine our factual recitation and analysis to the sole issue raised in the petitioner's application for habeas relief: whether the prosecution's strike of the only black prospective juror violated Batson. In the process, we draw upon the facts recited by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, supplemented by other facts in the record consistent with that recitation. See Companonio v. O'Brien, 672 F.3d 101, 104 (1st Cir. 2012).

Tiphany Tallo, a seventeen-year-old girl, was shot and killed during a violent brawl in a churchyard in Providence, Rhode Island on May 9, 2011. See

35 F.4th 72

Porter I, 179 A.3d at 1222. Jealousy between two women (Tiphany's sister and the petitioner's sister) over a man lay at the root of the strife. See id. As the melee intensified, witnesses say that they saw the petitioner fire a gun in Tiphany's direction, after which she "placed her hand on her chest ... and collapsed." Id. Tiphany was pronounced dead at a local hospital soon afterward and the petitioner (who had fled the scene) was apprehended. See id. at 1222-23. The authorities charged him with murder, various firearms offenses, and assault with a dangerous weapon. See id. at 1223.

In preparation for trial in Providence County Superior Court, jury selection took place in November of 2013. Juror 103 was an African-American male and, as counsel for both sides confirmed, was the only black person in the venire. Unprompted, Juror 103 requested to speak with the trial justice immediately upon being called by the clerk. See id. at 1225. In a sidebar conference, he stated that he was an institutional attendant at Eleanor Slater Hospital (a state institution) and that there was "considerable chatter about this case" at work. He explained that some patients at the hospital were inmates at a local correctional facility who "follow these cases" and were likely to discover his service on the jury. Id. Given the chatter about the case, he told the court, "chances are, regardless which way [the verdict] goes, I can find myself subject of either allegations or hostile treatment either from the staff or from patients." Id. at 1226 (alteration in original).

Pressed by the trial justice, Juror 103 affirmed that he was "not at all" biased or prejudiced in resolving the matter, but agreed with the trial justice that he had "concern" that he might face "blow-back at the facility regardless of what decision this jury makes." In response to additional questioning by the prosecutor, Juror 103 stated that his fear of workplace retaliation "would not affect [his] decision" or "affect [him] being fair" as a juror, "but it possibly could affect [his] life thereafter." Asked by the prosecutor whether he had "a concern that if [he] were to ultimately ... vote guilty, and the jury came back guilty, ... that [he] possibly could face retaliation because of that verdict," Juror 103 replied, "[a]bsolutely." He nonetheless concluded the sidebar discussion by reaffirming to the trial justice that he would be "a fair and impartial juror."

After a recess, the prosecutor exercised a peremptory strike as to Juror 103. Without being asked to justify the strike, the prosecutor volunteered the following explanation, which we recount at length because of its centrality to this appeal:

The State submits that ... [Juror 103] immediately asked for a sidebar discussion. During that ensuing discussion ... the State focused on, and ultimately has concern with, and bases its challenge on articulating a race-based [sic] neutral reason for its challenge under Batson as to the following. Although the ... juror did say he could be, quote, fair ... the State bases its challenge on the following. The juror ultimately indicated that he has a feeling and is under the belief that as a consequence of his verdict, he may face repercussions, or he would face — and I think the words he used, Your Honor, was he would get blow-back, quote-unquote. Blow-back and concern, based on his verdict.

Essentially, what he was saying is that — and, again, this is the State's take — he's a member of the African-American community, the defendant at the bar is a member of the African-American community, he's the only one on the panel who is, and if he were to vote guilty there could be consequences to it. And I would submit, respectfully, I
35 F.4th 73
may be wrong, but if he were to vote not guilty, I don't think he would have any consequence. I don't think he indicated — and I think, I would infer from the record that all of his concern is, quote, towards a guilty verdict. He never was asked that, but I would — as common sense indicates, how could it not [sic] be for a not guilty verdict?

Essentially, although he may have said he could deliver a verdict in this case, he expressed, as stated on the record, if the defendant was found guilty, ... a person at the [correctional facility] that got word of that could cause him concern, and I think he actually used the words: They would find out, and it could affect me.

I think, based on that, the State submits that we have a reason that although he said he could deliver a verdict, quite frankly, I still think it's a concern for him, and based on that, we would ask to excuse the juror.

Defense counsel objected on Batson grounds, arguing that Juror 103 was being struck because he was "the only African[-American] on the panel" and "because the defendant is an African-American."

The trial justice then stated that his "job at this point is to determine whether or not the State's explanation is a race-neutral explanation" and whether that explanation "is a credible explanation." The trial justice remarked that "if [he] were a lawyer in [the prosecutors'] seat, [he] would not want this juror on [his] trial either, and it would not be for race reasons at all." Rather, the trial justice reasoned, "[t]his is not a man [he] would want on [his] jury" because Juror 103 "harbor[ed] grave concerns as to what he will be exposed to in his workplace" due to his verdict and that is "a race-neutral explanation." The trial justice proceeded to excuse Juror 103 from the panel. A jury bereft of any African-American members was subsequently seated. And — after more than seventeen days of trial — the jury found the petitioner guilty of second-degree murder and two firearms offenses. See Porter I, 179 A.3d at 1223. He was sentenced to two separate terms of life imprisonment for murder and for discharging a firearm while committing a crime of violence. See id. at 1221. He was also sentenced to shorter terms for possession of a firearm and for being a habitual offender. See id.

The petitioner appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, arguing (among other things) that the prosecutor "failed to offer a valid race-neutral reason for challenging" Juror 103. Id. at 1226. Without addressing the prosecutor's...

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