State v. Mukhtaar

Decision Date17 May 2000
Docket Number(SC 15801)
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Officially released May 17, 20001.

McDonald, C. J., and Borden, Palmer, Sullivan and Callahan, JS. Suzanne Zitser, assistant public defender, with whom, on the brief, was Mark Rademacher, assistant public defender, for the appellant (defendant).

Susann E. Gill, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Jonathan C. Benedict, state's attorney, and John C. Smriga, senior assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).



After a jury trial, the defendant, Abdul Mukhtaar, was convicted of murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a.2 The trial court rendered judgment 3 in accordance with the jury verdict, and the defendant appealed.4 On appeal, the defendant maintains that the trial court improperly: (1) rejected his claim that the state, during jury selection, had exercised its peremptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner; (2) failed to make an adequate inquiry into allegations of juror bias; (3) permitted the state to introduce a witness' prior inconsistent written statement as substantive evidence; and (4) instructed the jury on the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt. We reject the defendant's claims and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The jury reasonably could have found the following facts. At approximately 4 p.m. on February 14, 1996, Benjamin Sierra, Jr., was driving his parents' car on Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport. While stopped at a red light at the intersection of Fairfield and Iranistan Avenues, Sierra spotted two young women, Tracey Gabree and Terri Horeglad, with whom he was acquainted, standing at a nearby pay telephone. Sierra waved to Gabree and Horeglad and they approached and entered Sierra's car. Horeglad sat in the front passenger seat and Gabree sat in the back seat.

Gabree asked Sierra for a cigarette. Sierra then turned around and gave her a cigarette and a light. Sierra asked Gabree and Horeglad where they were going and one of them responded that they were homeless and just wanted to get warm.

When Sierra turned back toward the front of the car, he observed that his vehicle was blocked by a tan car that was facing the wrong direction on Fairfield Avenue. At that moment, Gabree shouted: "Oh shit, Kareem!" Gabree then fled from Sierra's car. A man, later identified by Sierra and Gabree as the defendant, emerged from the tan car and approached the passenger side of Sierra's car, where Horeglad remained seated. Sierra jumped out of his car and asked the defendant what was wrong. The defendant, who did not respond, pulled out what appeared to be a .32 or .38 caliber chrome plated revolver and fired four shots at Horeglad, each of which entered the right side of her body. Horeglad died as a result of the gunshot wounds. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.


The defendant first claims that he is entitled to a new trial because the state improperly exercised its peremptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner. We disagree.

Before addressing the defendant's contentions, we first summarize the applicable law. "In Batson [v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S. Ct. 1712, 90 L. Ed. 2d 69 (1986)] the United States Supreme Court recognized that a claim of purposeful racial discrimination on the part of the prosecution in selecting a jury raises constitutional questions of the utmost seriousness, not only for the integrity of a particular trial but also for the perceived fairness of the judicial system as a whole.... The court concluded that [a]lthough a prosecutor ordinarily is entitled to exercise permitted peremptory challenges for any reason at all, as long as that reason is related to his [or her] view concerning the outcome of the case to be tried ... the Equal Protection Clause forbids the prosecutor to challenge potential jurors solely on account of their race .... State v. Robinson, [237 Conn. 238, 243-44, 676 A.2d 384 (1996)]....

"Under Connecticut law, [o]nce a [party] asserts a Batson claim, the [opposing party] must advance a neutral explanation for the venireperson's removal.... The [party asserting the Batson claim] is then afforded the opportunity to demonstrate that the [opposing party's] articulated reasons are insufficient or pretextual.5... [T]he trial court then [has] the duty to determine if the [party asserting the Batson claim] has established purposeful discrimination.... The [party asserting the Batson claim] carries the ultimate burden of persuading the trial court, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the jury selection process in his or her particular case was tainted by purposeful discrimination....6

"We have identified several specific factors that may indicate that [a party's removal] of a venireperson through a peremptory challenge was ... motivated [by race or gender]. These include, but are not limited to: (1) [t]he reasons given for the challenge were not related to the trial of the case ... (2) the [party exercising the peremptory strike] failed to question the challenged juror or only questioned him or her in a perfunctory manner ... (3) prospective jurors of one race [or gender] were asked a question to elicit a particular response that was not asked of the other jurors... (4) persons with the same or similar characteristics but not the same race [or gender] as the challenged juror were not struck ... (5) the [party exercising the peremptory strike] advanced an explanation based on a group bias where the group trait is not shown to apply to the challenged juror specifically ... and (6) the [party exercising the peremptory strike] used a disproportionate number of peremptory challenges to exclude members of one race [or gender]....

"In assessing the reasons proffered in support of the use of a peremptory challenge ... [a]n explanation... need not ... be pigeon-holed as wholly acceptable or wholly unacceptable ... and even where the acceptability of a particular explanation is doubtful, the inquiry is not at an end. In deciding the ultimate issue of discriminatory intent, the judicial officer is entitled to assess each explanation in light of all the other evidence relevant to prosecutorial intent. The officer may think a dubious explanation undermines the bona fides of other explanations or may think that the sound explanations dispel the doubt raised by a questionable one. As with most inquiries into state of mind, the ultimate determination depends on an aggregate assessment of all the circumstances....

"Finally, the trial court's decision on the question of discriminatory intent represents a finding of fact that will necessarily turn on the court's evaluation of the demeanor and credibility of the attorney of the party exercising the peremptory challenge.... Accordingly, a trial court's determination that there has or has not been intentional discrimination is afforded great deference and will not be disturbed unless it is clearly erroneous.... A finding of fact is clearly erroneous when there is no evidence in the record to support it... or when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Hodge, 248 Conn. 207, 218-24, 726 A.2d 531 (1999); accord State v. King, 249 Conn. 645, 657-60, 735 A.2d 267 (1999). Guided by these principles, we now turn to the defendant's claim.

The defendant contends that the trial court improperly denied his Batson challenge to the state's use of a peremptory challenge to strike venireperson J.J.,7 an African-American female. The defendant argues that the state's challenge of J.J. was pretextual because the proffered explanation for striking her was not supported by her responses and, also, because the state later accepted a white venireperson, J.O., who, according to the defendant, gave answers comparable to those of J.J.

The following additional facts are necessary to our resolution of this claim. During her voir dire examination, J.J. indicated to defense counsel that she might be uncomfortable serving on the jury.8 Thereafter, the assistant state's attorney (state's attorney), during his questioning of J.J., sought to clarify why J.J. had indicated some discomfort with serving as a juror in this case. J.J. responded that she was uncertain whether she "really could be fair in [her] judgment." Upon further questioning, J.J. explained that making decisions affecting another person's life would be different from making decisions concerning her own.9 J.J. also agreed that she would not have a problem acquitting the defendant if the state did not prove its case. When the state's attorney asked J.J. if she would have any difficulty convicting the defendant if she found that the state had proved its case, she responded: "I may have some hesitation. I mean, I can't say yes or no until I hear everything, all the evidence or whatever it is." When asked if her hesitation would affect her ability to be objective in a criminal case, she answered: "I think there's always some hesitation."

At the conclusion of J.J.'s voir dire, the state's attorney moved to excuse her for cause, citing concerns about whether she could be objective.10 The trial court denied that motion. The state then sought to exercise a peremptory challenge against J.J. The defendant objected on the ground that the challenge was racially motivated. The state's attorney advanced the same explanation that he had made in support of his challenge for cause, adding that "if a person comes in here and they express at the very minimum ... hesitation in perhaps being able to find someone guilty, I would certainly be irresponsible if I did not excuse that person whether they were black, white or any other race." The trial court...

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