State v. Robinson

Decision Date24 May 2022
Docket NumberCR-18-0284-AP
Parties STATE of Arizona, Appellee, v. Dwandarrius Jamar ROBINSON, Appellant.
CourtArizona Supreme Court

Mark Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General, Joseph T. Maziarz, Chief Counsel, Capital Litigation Section, Sarah E. Heckathorne (argued), David Ahl, Assistant Attorneys General, Phoenix, Attorneys for State of Arizona

Rosemarie Peña-Lynch, Director and Legal Advocate, Kerri L. Chamberlin (argued), Deputy Legal Advocate, Office of the Legal Advocate, Phoenix, Attorneys for Dwandarrius Jamar Robinson

Jared G. Keenan, Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Phoenix; Joshua D. Bendor, Osborn Maledon, P.A., Phoenix; and Alejandra Curiel-Molina, Kassandra Garcia, Zachary Stern, Kate McFarlane, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, Phoenix, Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice

CHIEF JUSTICE BRUTINEL, opinion of the Court:

¶1 Dwandarrius Jamar Robinson was sentenced to death after a jury found him guilty of two counts of first degree murder, one count of arson of an occupied structure, and one count of kidnapping. We have jurisdiction under article 6, section 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution and A.R.S. §§ 13-4031 and -4033(A). For the following reasons, we affirm Robinson's convictions and sentences.


¶2 On July 18, 2012, Robinson beat, bound, and immolated his nine-months-pregnant girlfriend, Shaniqua Hall ("S.H."), in the master bedroom of their shared apartment, killing both her and their unborn child, Baby Hall ("B.H.").1 He then placed a 9-1-1 call to report a fire at the apartment, where, upon extinguishing the fire, emergency responders discovered S.H.’s partially burned body lying face down on the bedroom floor with her feet and hands bound, wrists handcuffed, mouth and eyes covered with duct tape, and mouth stuffed with a folded cloth. A search of Robinson's backpack revealed a partially used roll of silver duct tape, an unopened roll of black duct tape, pieces of crumpled duct tape, a grocery bag, a matchbook with at least one match missing, and a receipt reflecting purchases of duct tape and a bottle of lighter fluid earlier that day.2 Police also found a handcuff key in Robinson's pocket.

¶3 The medical examiner, Dr. John Hu, performed autopsies on both bodies. He determined that S.H.’s death was the result of "homicidal violence," with the manner of death likely being either asphyxia

from smothering or strangulation, blunt force trauma, ligature restraint, or some combination thereof. He could not, however, definitively say whether she was alive or dead at the time of the fire. Dr. Hu attributed B.H.’s death to the lack of blood supply caused by S.H.’s death. B.H.’s gestational age was thirty-eight weeks and was thus considered full term.

¶4 On July 24, 2012, a grand jury indicted Robinson on two counts of first degree murder, one count of arson of an occupied structure, and one count of kidnapping. The State noticed its intent to seek the death penalty, alleging a total of seven death-qualifying aggravating circumstances—three as to S.H. and four as to B.H. For six of them, the State listed the same three aggravators as to each murder—specifically, that Robinson had a prior conviction for a serious offense, see A.R.S. § 13-751(F)(2) (2009);3 that he was convicted of one or more homicides committed during the commission of the offense, see § 13-751(F)(8) ; and that he killed each victim in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner, see § 13-751(F)(6). For the final aggravator, the State alleged that Robinson was an adult and that B.H. was an unborn child at the time of the murder. See § 13-751(F)(9).

¶5 The jury trial commenced on January 22, 2018. The jury found Robinson guilty on all four counts and, at the end of the aggravation phase, found all seven aggravators proven beyond a reasonable doubt. During the penalty phase, Robinson put on evidence of the violence, poverty, and abuse that purportedly pervaded his childhood home and hometown. After considering the mitigation evidence, the jury returned death verdicts on both murder counts. The trial court imposed that sentence and, additionally, sentenced Robinson to a concurrent fifteen-year sentence on the arson conviction and a consecutive fifteen-year sentence on the kidnapping conviction.

¶6 Robinson timely appealed. See § 13-4031.

A. The Batson Challenges

¶7 Robinson first takes aim at the State's peremptory strikes of four minority jurors—two of them Black (Jurors 145 and 358), one Hispanic (Juror 260), and one Native American (Juror 300). He argues that the trial court erred in accepting the State's proffered race-neutral reasons for striking each juror. We disagree.

¶8 The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "forbids the prosecutor to challenge potential jurors solely on account of their race."4 Batson v. Kentucky , 476 U.S. 79, 89, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986). "A Batson challenge involves three steps: (1) The defendant must make a prima facie showing of discrimination, (2) the prosecutor must offer a race-neutral reason for each strike, and (3) the trial court must determine whether the [defendant] proved purposeful racial discrimination." Smith , 250 Ariz. at 86 ¶ 63, 475 P.3d at 575 (quoting State v. Medina , 232 Ariz. 391, 404 ¶ 44, 306 P.3d 48, 61 (2013) ). Our inquiry here focuses on the third step. We usually defer to the trial court on this "pure issue of fact," (Dionisio ) Hernandez v. New York , 500 U.S. 352, 364, 111 S.Ct. 1859, 114 L.Ed.2d 395 (1991), which almost invariably depends upon an assessment of the prosecutor's credibility, Smith , 250 Ariz. at 86 ¶ 62, 475 P.3d at 575. Our deference is not a rubber stamp. See Miller-El v. Cockrell , 537 U.S. 322, 340, 123 S.Ct. 1029, 154 L.Ed.2d 931 (2003) ("Deference does not by definition preclude relief."). We will instead affirm the trial court's determination absent clear error. Smith , 250 Ariz. at 86 ¶ 62, 475 P.3d at 575.

¶9 We remain true to Batson ’s limits. A prosecutor need not justify a challenged strike by satisfying the higher showing required of a challenge for cause. Batson , 476 U.S. at 97, 106 S.Ct. 1712. Batson ’s purpose is the prevention of "purposeful discrimination." See Smith , 250 Ariz. at 87 ¶ 67, 475 P.3d at 576. "Discriminatory purpose implies more than intent as volition or intent as awareness of consequences." (Dionisio ) Hernandez , 500 U.S. at 360, 111 S.Ct. 1859 (cleaned up). It means acting "because of, not merely in spite of, its adverse effects upon an identifiable group." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Pers. Adm'r of Mass. v. Feeney , 442 U.S. 256, 279, 99 S.Ct. 2282, 60 L.Ed.2d 870 (1979) ). And the burden of showing such discrimination falls to the challenger. Smith , 250 Ariz. at 87 ¶ 67, 475 P.3d at 576. Thus, absent exceptional circumstances—for instance, where there is "[p]roof of systematic exclusion from the venire," see Batson , 476 U.S. at 94, 106 S.Ct. 1712, or where the state falls back on threadbare assurances of race neutrality, see id. at 97–98, 106 S.Ct. 1712we will not infer error based on "statistical disparity alone," see State v. Gay , 214 Ariz. 214, 221 ¶ 20, 150 P.3d 787, 794 (App. 2007) ; see also (Dionisio ) Hernandez , 500 U.S. at 359–60, 111 S.Ct. 1859 (noting official action is not unconstitutional based solely on its "racially disproportionate impact"). So long as the state offers a race-neutral explanation, the defendant must prove a discriminatory purpose. Batson , 476 U.S. at 98, 106 S.Ct. 1712.

¶10 We are equally mindful of Batson ’s blind spots. We are under no illusion that Batson somehow served to "end the racial discrimination that peremptories inject into the jury-selection process." See 476 U.S. at 102–03, 106 S.Ct. 1712 (Marshall, J., concurring). But it is not our place to augment the Supreme Court's enshrinement of what remains a federal constitutional protection. We accordingly eschew Robinson's and amici's invitations to shore up Batson ’s arguable shortcomings and instead limit our review to each of the trial court's determinations.

1. Juror 145

¶11 The trial court did not clearly err in denying Robinson's Batson challenge to the State's peremptory strike of Juror 145. The prosecutor provided the following explanation for the State's strike:

He indicated -- when he was being questioned about the ability to impose the death penalty, he said: It is terrifying for me to consider what we are even talking about.
That alone was of concern to the State. He did indicate that he did feel the death penalty could be appropriate, but that this decision terrifies him. And that is of great concern to the State.

Robinson's trial counsel did not respond directly to these reasons at trial but instead drew the trial court's attention to the racial makeup of the jury if all four strikes were permitted to stand. On appeal, however, Robinson calls the justification "demonstrably pretextual" because of its deliberate misconstruction of Juror 145's responses to voir dire questioning. Not so.

¶12 In fact, the prosecutor recapped Juror 145's words almost verbatim. Juror 145 had told defense counsel that it was "terrifying to consider what we're talking about"—that "what" being the choice between the death penalty and a life sentence. Juror 145 did also say that imposing death "could be appropriate," and responded, "Sure," when asked whether he could do so. None of which, however, denotes pretext. The prosecutor's own explanation acknowledged Juror 145's stated open-mindedness. Granted, Robinson's more favorable characterization of Juror 145's statements as an "acknowledgment of the seriousness of a capital case and the imposition of the death penalty" presents a valid perspective, just not the only one. The State was no less justified in construing the same words as an expression of hesitancy toward, or personal discomfort with, the idea of imposing the death penalty—a quality...

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