Ramseur v. Beyer

Decision Date31 December 1992
Docket NumberNo. 90-5333,90-5333
Citation983 F.2d 1215
PartiesThomas C. RAMSEUR, Appellant, v. Howard C. BEYER, Superintendent, New Jersey State Prison, Robert Del Tufo, New Jersey Attorney General.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Before: MANSMANN, COWEN and ROTH, Circuit Judges.

Reargued Sept. 10, 1992.



ROTH, Circuit Judge.

During the selection of the grand jury which indicted appellant, Thomas Ramseur, the assignment judge, through statements and actions, treated certain African-American members of the venire differently because of their race. There is, however, nothing in the record to indicate any actual exclusion from appellant's grand jury of African-American jurors on account of their race. This appeal requires us to address the difficult question of whether these events comprise a constitutional violation. We must also determine whether the grand and petit juries that tried and convicted the appellant were drawn from lists that unconstitutionally underrepresented African-Americans and whether the procedures used in Essex County, New Jersey, to select grand jury forepersons violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a trial by a jury drawn from a cross-section of the community. Finally, we must determine whether misconduct by the prosecutor in this case denied appellant his constitutional right to a fair trial. Appellant, Thomas Ramseur, has advanced these grounds in his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court denied his petition. For the reasons that follow, we will affirm the denial of the petition but will do so for the reasons we state below.


On May 12, 1983, a jury found Thomas Ramseur guilty of the murder of Asaline Stokes, his former girlfriend. He was convicted on all counts charged in the indictment against him: (1) murder (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3); (2) unlawful possession of a knife under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for lawful use (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d); and (3) unlawful possession of a knife with the purpose of using it against another (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d). Following the sentencing phase of the bifurcated trial, the jury rendered a sentence of death that was imposed by the trial court on June 17, 1983.

On March 5, 1987, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed Ramseur's convictions on all counts but reversed his death sentence. See State v. Ramseur, 106 N.J. 123, 524 A.2d 188 (1987). Ramseur then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. 1 On March 14, 1990, the district court denied Ramseur's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. This appeal followed. We have jurisdiction over this appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1291, 2253. Our scope of review of a district court's conclusions of law with regard to a state prisoner's petition for a writ of habeas corpus is plenary. See Humanik v. Beyer, 871 F.2d 432, 435 (3d Cir.1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 812, 110 S.Ct. 57, 107 L.Ed.2d 25 (1989).


The crux of Ramseur's complaint is that the procedure used to empanel grand jurors in Essex County violated his right to equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. Resolving this issue requires a close examination of the procedure used to empanel grand juries in the county prior to and at the time of Ramseur's indictment.

We will describe in Part III how the juror source lists were created in Essex County, panels of qualified jurors selected from those lists, and summonses sent to persons randomly designated for the grand jury panels. Many potential jurors, upon receipt of the summons to jury service and the realization that grand jury service would last for a six week period, would submit a written request for an excuse. The clerk's office would screen these excuses and meritorious requests would be granted before the jurors actually appeared for service. Prior to the assembly of the venire, the assignment judges for Essex County would review the letters and questionnaires received. At the actual selection, the assignment judges would question each juror and reconsider the excuses previously requested but denied.

The assignment judge who empaneled Ramseur's grand jury used the following procedure once the venire was assembled: First, the judge briefly interviewed each juror. Then he did one of three things: excused the juror for cause, asked the juror to take a seat in the body of the courtroom for the time being, or asked the juror to take a seat on the panel. Those he asked to sit in the body of the courtroom fell into one of two groups. The first group consisted of those persons who had asked to be excused but whose excuses had been denied. They were asked to sit in the body of the courtroom with the understanding that they might be called upon to serve later, after all of the other prospective jurors had been questioned. The second group consisted of persons who proffered no excuse, stated they were willing to serve, but were nonetheless asked to sit aside.

In the course of empaneling Ramseur's grand jury, the judge announced that he was attempting to "pick a cross section of the community" to serve on the grand jury. App. at 2429. Later, he asked Esther Catagen, app. at 2447, and George Smith, app. at 2438, to sit in the body of the courtroom although both had stated they were willing to serve. When the assignment judge reached Betty Patrick, the forty-third prospective juror in the selection of Ramseur's grand jury, Ms. Patrick indicated that she was willing to serve. However, the judge asked her to take a seat in the body of the courtroom and stated:

I don't mind telling you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury or the panel of the grand jury, I am trying to get a cross-section; and as you've probably noticed, I have asked two of the blacks who have indicated a willingness to serve to sit in the body of the courtroom. I am deliberately trying to get an even mix of people from background and races, and things like that. And if any of you think that I am in any way being sneaky about it, please understand that I am not. I am telling you like it is, and that is the reason I have done what I have done.

App. at 2449-2450. 2 Following this announcement, the judge asked two other panel members who expressed a willingness to serve, Francena Hardwick, app. at 2453, and Orro Ikena, app. at 2454, to sit in the body of the courtroom.

After panel members one through twenty-two had been selected, but prior to voir dire, the assignment judge asked Ms. Catagen to come up from the body of the courtroom and take seat number twenty-three. The judge then embarked on voir dire of the jurors assembled. One of the jurors explained that she was "prejudiced against certain people, certain races." The judge excused that juror, explaining, "I appreciate your honesty, and we don't want people like you to serve on the Grand Jury." App. at 2464. That juror was replaced by Orro Ikena. At that point Mr. Ikena proffered an excuse which the court accepted. Ms. Patrick was then asked to take the seat to which Mr. Ikena had been assigned. Ultimately, George Smith, the fifth juror who had expressed a willingness to serve but was initially asked to sit in the body of the courtroom, also found his way onto the panel although the transcript does not reflect how this came about. Ms. Hardwick, who had expressed a willingness to serve but was nonetheless asked to sit in the body of the courtroom, was never chosen as a grand juror. The record does not clearly establish the race of Mr. Ikena, Mr. Smith, or Ms. Hardwick.

N.J.S.A. 2A:73-1 provides:

If from any grand jury panel, more persons remain available for service, after excuses have been allowed, than are necessary to constitute the grand jury, the persons whose names are first drawn and not excused, not to exceed twenty-three in number, shall constitute the grand jury.

The random selection procedure set forth in the New Jersey statute was routinely ignored by the assignment judges of Essex County at the time Ramseur's grand jury was chosen. 3 At a hearing regarding Ramseur's allegations in 1983, one assignment judge stated that rather than selecting jurors randomly "it may be on the basis of my observation of them that I feel that they should not be selected." App. at 3883-3884. Asked if his choices were made as a result of his "discretionary judgment about each person," the judge responded, "There is no question about that." Id. The record in this case contains many similar statements that show that Essex County assignment judges used subjective criteria to select grand jurors and often considered race, "a racial balance" or a "cross section" of black and white jurors when assembling grand juries. 4 Based upon the protections of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the United States Supreme Court "gradually has abolished race as a consideration for jury service." Georgia v. McCollum, --- U.S. ----, ----, 112 S.Ct. 2348, 2352, 120 L.Ed.2d 33 (1992). "[R]acial discrimination in the qualification or selection of jurors offends the dignity of persons and the integrity of the courts." Powers v. Ohio, --- U.S. ----, ----, 111 S.Ct. 1364, 1366, 113 L.Ed.2d 411 (1991). Discrimination on the basis of race in the selection of grand jurors is unacceptable and " 'strikes at the fundamental values of our judicial system and our society as a whole.' " Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U.S. 254,...

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