State v. Blake

Docket Number6045,Appellate Case 2018-001943
Decision Date17 January 2024
PartiesThe State, Respondent, v. Benjamin Jerome Blake, Appellant.
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals

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The State, Respondent,
v.

Benjamin Jerome Blake, Appellant.

No. 6045

Appellate Case No. 2018-001943

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

January 17, 2024


Heard December 7, 2021

Appeal From Hampton County Kristi F. Curtis, Circuit Court Judge

Appellate Defender Kathrine Haggard Hudgins, of Columbia, for Appellant.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson and Assistant Attorney General Ambree Michele Muller, both of Columbia; and Isaac McDuffie Stone, III, of Bluffton, for Respondent.

McDONALD, J.

Benjamin Jerome Blake appeals his convictions for attempted murder, assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature (ABHAN), and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime, arguing the

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circuit court erred in allowing the State to question him about an unrelated prior bad act and in failing to conduct a proper Batson[1] analysis. We affirm.

Facts and Procedural History

On November 7, 2015, Blake shot at Jeantaviene "Chabby" Dobson but missed. The errant shot struck Dobson's pregnant sister, Tiffany Lakes. A Hampton County Grand Jury indicted Blake for three counts of attempted murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. At Blake's subsequent jury trial, Blake and three family witnesses testified Blake was at the hospital on the morning of November 7 and later at his mother's house recovering from a sickle cell episode on the night of the shooting.[2] The jury rejected this alibi testimony and found Blake guilty of attempted murder as to Dobson and guilty of the lesser included offense of ABHAN as to Lakes and her unborn child. Blake was also convicted on the accompanying weapons possession charge. The circuit court sentenced Blake concurrently to fifteen years for attempted murder, fifteen years on the two ABHAN counts, and five years on the weapons charge.

Analysis

I. Batson Challenge

Blake argues the circuit court erred in in failing to conduct the third step of the Batson analysis when considering the State's explanations for using four of its five peremptory challenges to strike black jurors. Blake contends the State's reasons for the strikes were pretextual and asserts at least one of the strikes amounted to purposeful racial discrimination. We find no abuse of discretion.

"The trial court's findings regarding purposeful discrimination are accorded great deference and will be set aside on appeal only if clearly erroneous." State v. Weatherall, 431 S.C. 485, 493, 848 S.E.2d 338, 343 (Ct. App. 2020) (quoting State v. Blackwell, 420 S.C. 127, 148, 801 S.E.2d 713, 724 (2017)). "This standard of

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review, however, is premised on the trial court following the mandated procedure for a Batson hearing." State v. Cochran, 369 S.C. 308, 312, 631 S.E.2d 294, 297 (Ct. App. 2006). "[W]here the assignment of error is the failure to follow the Batson hearing procedure, we must answer a question of law." Id. "When a question of law is presented, our standard of review is plenary." Id. at 312-13, 631 S.E.2d at 297.

"Other than voting, serving on a jury is the most substantial opportunity that most citizens have to participate in the democratic process." Flowers v. Mississippi, 139 S.Ct. 2228, 2238 (2019). In Batson, the United States Supreme Court found the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the prosecution from striking potential jurors on the basis of race. 476 U.S. at 89; see also State v. Shuler, 344 S.C. 604, 615, 545 S.E.2d 805, 810 (2001) ("The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the striking of a venire person on the basis of race or gender."). The Court subsequently held a criminal defendant may not exercise peremptory strikes in a racially discriminatory manner, explaining that "denying a person participation in jury service on account of his race unconstitutionally discriminates against the excluded juror." Georgia v. McCollum, 505 U.S. 42, 48 (1992). And, in J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T.B., the Court held litigants may not strike potential jurors solely on the basis of gender. 511 U.S. 127, 143 (1994). The Court found, "Discrimination in jury selection, whether based on race or on gender, causes harm to the litigants, the community, and the individual jurors who are wrongfully excluded from participation in the judicial process." Id. at 140. "The 'Constitution forbids striking even a single prospective juror for a discriminatory purpose.'" Foster v. Chatman, 578 U.S. 488, 499, (2016) (quoting Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472, 478, (2008)).

Trial courts conduct a three-step inquiry when evaluating "whether a party executed a peremptory challenge in a manner which violated the Equal Protection Clause." State v. Inman, 409 S.C. 19, 26, 760 S.E.2d 105, 108 (2014). Our supreme court summarized the inquiry in State v. Giles:

First, the opponent of the peremptory challenge must make a prima facie showing that the challenge was based on race. If a sufficient showing is made, the trial court will move to the second step in the process, which requires the proponent of the challenge to provide a race neutral explanation for the challenge. If the trial court finds that burden has been met, the process will proceed
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to the third step, at which point the trial court must determine whether the opponent of the challenge has proved purposeful discrimination. The ultimate burden always rests with the opponent of the challenge to prove purposeful discrimination.

407 S.C. 14, 18, 754 S.E.2d 261, 263 (2014).

"Under Batson, once a prima facie case of discrimination has been shown by a defendant, the State must provide race-neutral reasons for its peremptory strikes. The trial judge must determine whether the prosecutor's stated reasons were the actual reasons or instead were a pretext for discrimination." Flowers, 139 S.Ct. at 2241; see also State v. Cochran, 369 S.C. at 314, 631 S.E.2d at 297-98 ("Once a peremptory challenge is opposed, the trial court must, upon request, conduct a Batson hearing and adhere to the procedures set forth in Purkett v. Elem, 514 U.S. 765, 767 (1995), and adopted by our Supreme Court in State v. Adams, 322 S.C. 114, 124, 470 S.E.2d 366, 372 (1996))."

Our supreme court has further explained:

We likewise find, based on a harmonization of Batson, Purkett and Miller-El,[[3] that in order for the explanation provided by the proponent of a peremptory challenge at the second stage of the Batson process to be legally sufficient and not deny the opponent of the challenge, as well as the trial court, the ability to safeguard the right to equal protection, it need not be persuasive, or even plausible, but it must be clear and reasonably specific such that the opponent of the challenge has a full and fair opportunity to demonstrate pretext in the reason given and the trial court to fulfill its duty to assess the plausibility of the reason in light of all the evidence with a bearing on it. Reasonable specificity is necessary because comparison to other members of the venire for purposes of a disparate treatment analysis, which is often used at the third step of the Batson process to determine if purposeful discrimination has occurred, is impossible if the proponent of the challenge provides only a vague or
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very general explanation. The explanation given may in fact be implausible or fantastic, as noted in Purkett, but it may not be so general or vague that it deprives the opponent of the challenge of the ability to meet the burden to show, or the trial court of the ability to determine whether, the reason given is pretextual. The proponent of the challenge must provide an objectively discernible basis for the challenge that permits the opponent of the challenge and the trial court to evaluate it. The trial judge need not proceed to step three of the Batson process when no constitutionally permissible reason has been proffered at step two.

Giles, 407 S.C. at 21-22, 754 S.E.2d at 265.

While "[s]tep two of the analysis is perhaps the easiest step to meet as it does not require that the race-neutral explanation be persuasive, or even plausible[,]" step three "requires the court to carefully evaluate whether the party asserting the Batson challenge has proven racial discrimination by demonstrating that the proffered race-neutral reasons are mere pretext for a discriminatory intent." Inman, 409 S.C. at 26-27, 760 S.E.2d at 108. "During step three, the party asserting the Batson challenge should point to direct evidence of racial discrimination, such as showing that the opponent struck a juror for a facially neutral reason but did not strike a similarly-situated juror of another race." Id. at 27, 760 S.E.2d at 108-09. "In doing so, the party proves that the 'originally neutral reason was . . . a pretext because it was not applied in a neutral manner.'" Id. at 27, 760 S.E.2d at 109 (quoting State v. Oglesby, 298 S.C. 279, 281, 379 S.E.2d 891, 892 (1989)).

Here, the State used four of its five peremptory challenges to strike black jurors. The impaneled jury was composed of six black jurors and six white jurors. At the conclusion of jury selection, Blake made a Batson motion noting, "The State struck all black jurors, Your Honor. My client is a black male, I think that is [a] due process violation, Your Honor, and I would ask that you elicit race neutral reasons for that being done."

When the circuit court addressed the State, the assistant solicitor responded:

Thank you, Your Honor. I did also seat a number of black jurors, both male and female. The first black juror that I struck[,] number 18, he was a black male. He had a
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history of traffic charges, i.e., not following the rules and he seemed a little jokey and laughey during qualifications. The second person that I struck was number 73, a black female, college student. I do
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