The California Supreme Court on Monday upheld the death sentence of an African American man convicted of killing an elderly white couple in Riverside County, a decision that prompted two justices to dissent on the grounds that prosecutors may have improperly challenged prospective black jurors.
In a majority ruling written by Justice Ming W. Chin, the state high court affirmed in a 5-2 decision the guilty verdict and death sentence against Albert Jones, who was 29 when he hog-tied, robbed and fatally stabbed James Florville, 82, and his wife, Madalynne Florville, 72, in their Mead Valley home in 1993.
"The record here shows that the prosecutor exercised his peremptory challenges to obtain a jury as favorable to his side as possible … and not to eliminate African Americans for racial reasons," Chin wrote for the majority.
But Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Carlos R. Moreno dissented on the grounds that the prosecutor's reasons for challenging three of five prospective black jurors were not backed by evidence and that the trial judge failed to probe the prosecutor properly.
"The prosecutor offered for each challenge important, even dramatic reasons — reasons the record does not support," wrote Werdegar, joined by Moreno. "That the record does not support the prosecutor's reasons suggests they were pretextual."
The U.S. and California constitutions prohibit attorneys from attempting to remove prospective jurors because of their race.
While picking a jury during Jones' trial, a defense lawyer objected to the prosecution's challenge of three prospective black jurors. The judge asked the prosecution to justify its use of the peremptory challenges.
The prosecution said it wanted to remove one black man, who supervised 150 bus drivers, because he was a bus driver and local lighting conditions on the morning of the crime might be an issue because of an eyewitness in the case. The prosecutor said bus drivers might have firsthand knowledge of the lighting conditions.
But the prosecutor did not object to two other bus drivers who were empanelled. They were white.
The prosecutor also challenged an African American woman because she was a member of a "controversial church." She was a member of an African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Another African American man was challenged and excused on the grounds that he had a son who had been charged with a serious crime. "I think it was murder or attempted murder," the prosecutor told the judge. But in a written questionnaire, that prospective juror failed to specify the kind of crime.
In ruling on Jones' appeal, the state high court majority noted that the prosecutor had unsuccessfully tried to empanel other African Americans who had been excused for various reasons. "The prosecution gave a detailed, specific, race-neutral explanation of each of the challenges in question," Chin wrote.
But because the judge failed to question the prosecutor thoroughly, it was impossible to know whether the prosecutor made "honest mistakes" in describing his reasons or removed jurors because of their race, Werdegar wrote.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Scott C. Taylor, who represented the prosecution in the case, said the prosecution's reasons for challenging the three African Americans were justified. "I think the majority got it right," Taylor said.
The attorney who represented Jones was unavailable for comment.