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California's top court overturns convictions because prosecutor excluded Latinos from jury

For the first time in 16 years, the California Supreme Court has found that racial bias improperly tainted a jury selection, prompting the court to overturn three convictions — two for attempted murder.

The unanimous decision, written by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, appeared intended to send a clear signal to prosecutors, defense lawyers and the lower courts that charges of racially motivated juror exclusions must be taken seriously.

“It is not only litigants who are harmed when the right to trial by impartial jury is abridged,” Cuéllar wrote Thursday. “Taints of discriminatory bias in jury selection — actual or perceived — erode confidence in the adjudicative process, undermining the public’s trust in courts.”

A.J. Kutchins, a senior deputy state public defender who argued on behalf of the defense in the Kern County case, called Thursday’s decision “a real watershed.”

“There is something of a sea change in how the court is dealing with the constitutional rights of the accused in criminal cases,” Kutchins said.

Several legal analysts attribute the change to the addition of three justices appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown — Cuéllar, Goodwin Liu and Leondra Kruger.

Instead of spurring more conservative/liberal splits, the new Democratic appointees appear to have slowly influenced their more veteran colleagues to take a harder look at some criminal cases, analysts said.

Kirk C. Jenkins, an appellate lawyer who studies the court, said criminal defendants won no more than 22% of the cases at the California Supreme Court from 2000 to 2013, but that rate has risen steadily since the Brown justices joined.

Scholars have shown that conservative judges on a panel rule more moderately when liberals join, and liberals rule more moderately when conservatives are added, he said.

The new appointees, unlike most of the veterans, also hail from different backgrounds. None had been a judge prior to coming to the court, and the three are relatively young.

Liu, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, was a constitutional law professor at UC Berkeley. Cuéllar, an immigrant from Mexico, was a professor at Stanford University.

Kruger, an African American, is a former federal government lawyer who argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since joining the court in 2011, Liu has written a series of concurrences and dissents expressing concern that racial bias was infecting jury selection.

He said Thursday’s decision marked only the second time in more than 25 years that the court has overturned a conviction because someone was excluded from a jury for improper reasons.

Santa Clara University emeritus law professor Gerald Uelmen called the decision “dynamite” and “a profound change.”

The ruling will affect every criminal trial. A violation of the rules, if left unchecked by the trial judge, would require convictions to be overturned, he said.

Both Liu and Cuéllar have expressed concern about the jury selection process since arriving at the court, “but I find it really amazing that they have now carried the entire court with them,” Uelmen said.

Discrimination in jury selection based on race, ethnicity or similar grounds violates the Constitution, according to California’s seminal 1978 ruling in People v. Wheeler and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky.

But over the past couple of decades, rulings by the California Supreme Court have emphasized the importance of deferring to trial judges, who make the initial call on whether race motivated a prospective juror’s removal.

Thursday’s decision amounted to a strong statement that deference without careful examination no longer would be tolerated, though Cuéllar and Liu framed their views in ways not to offend conservatives.

Cuéllar focused more on the need to protect would-be jurors from discrimination than on the rights of criminal defendants.

“The mix of Californians who report for jury service across the state changes nearly every day, but the responsibility of courts to assure integrity in the selection of jurors does not,” he wrote.

Liu cautioned that a violation of jury selection rules should not brand the prosecutor “a liar or a bigot.”

“Such loaded terms obscure the systemic values that the constitutional prohibition on racial discrimination in jury selection is designed to serve,” he wrote.

The ruling came in the case of Rene Gutierrez Jr., Gabriel Ramos and Ramiro Enriquez, who were convicted in 2011 of the non-fatal shooting of Clarence Langston in Bakersfield.

Gutierrez and Enriquez were sentenced to potential life terms in prison. Ramos received a five-year sentence. As a result of the decision, prosecutors will have to decide whether to retry them.

Lawyers for the defendants challenged the prosecution’s removal of 10 prospective jurors who were Latino.

The prosecutor, who allowed two Latinos to remain on the jury, gave reasons other than race for the exclusions, and the judge accepted them. A Court of Appeal upheld the convictions.

The Supreme Court, examining one of the exclusions, said the prosecutor failed to legally justify the removal of a Latina teacher who had relatives in law enforcement.

The prosecutor said he removed the woman because she said she was unaware of gang activity in her town. That view, the prosecutor told the court, could be problematic because one of the defendants admitted he was a gang member in that town.

But the California Supreme Court said the prosecutor had examined the woman only briefly and his questions did not reflect any such concern.

The ruling faulted the judge, who failed to explain why the prosecution’s reasoning was not a pretext for discrimination, the court said. The ruling also took the appeals court to task for failing to properly compare the panelists who were struck and those who were allowed to remain.

“The obligation to avoid discrimination in jury selection is a pivotal one,” Cuéllar wrote. “It is the duty of courts and counsel to ensure the record is both accurate and adequately developed.”

Lawyers say a desire to win, more than racism, affects how they pick a juror.

Liu, in a concurring opinion, noted that the legal standard of proof for finding a violation of the ban on race-based jury selection was “more likely than not.” That “probabilistic standard” is not designed “to elicit a definitive finding of deceit or racism,” he said.

“Instead, it defines a level of risk that courts cannot tolerate in light of the serious harms that racial discrimination in jury selection causes,” Liu wrote.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

Twitter: @mauradolan

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