The Court of Appeal of the State of California Second Appellate District Division Seven (“California Appellate Court”) held in its published opinion dated November 18, 2019: “The prohibition against the exercise of peremptory challenges to exclude prospective jurors on the basis of race or other group bias applies to civil as well as criminal cases. We credit the trial court for raising a Batson/Wheeler challenge on its own motion. But once the court found a prima facie showing of racial bias as to all six Hispanic prospective jurors, it was required to elicit from Dr. Akopyan’s attorney justifications for each of the six prospective jurors, including the four prospective jurors excused the prior day and the two excusals that immediately precipitated the court’s sua sponte motion.”
The California medical malpractice plaintiff, who is Hispanic, sued the defendant anesthesiologist, Asmik Akopyan, M.D., for medical malpractice, alleging that she served as the anesthesiologist during the birth of the plaintiff’s child, after which the plaintiff’s right leg was permanently paralyzed. The California medical malpractice jury found that the defendant anesthesiologist breached the duty of care she owed the plaintiff, but the breach did not cause the plaintiff’s paralysis.
The plaintiff appealed, contending that the trial court erred in denying the Batson/Wheeler motion the court made sua sponte after the defendant’s attorney exercised peremptory challenges to six Hispanic prospective jurors out of his seven total challenges. The plaintiff argued on appeal that the court erred in not requiring defense counsel to offer nondiscriminatory reasons for his first four challenges that formed the basis of the trial court’s prima facie finding of racial bias.
California Appellate Court Opinion
The California Appellate Court stated that a party may exercise a peremptory challenge for any permissible reason or no reason at all but exercising peremptory challenges solely on the basis of race offends the Fourteenth Amendment’s guaranty of the equal protection of the laws. Such conduct also violates the right to trial by a jury drawn from a representative cross-section of the community under article 1, section 16, of the California Constitution. Peremptory challenges may not be used to exclude prospective jurors based on group membership such as race or gender. The prohibition against the exercise of peremptory challenges to exclude prospective jurors on the basis of race or other group bias applies to civil as well as criminal cases.
A three-step procedure governs the analysis of Batson/Wheeler challenges. First, the defendant must make a prima facie showing that the prosecution exercised a challenge based on impermissible criteria, such as race. Second, if the trial court finds a prima facie case, then the prosecution must offer nondiscriminatory reasons for the challenge. Third, the trial court must determine whether the prosecution’s offered justification is credible and whether, in light of all relevant circumstances, the defendant has shown purposeful race discrimination. A Batson/Wheeler motion is timely if it is made before jury impanelment is completed, which does not occur until the alternates are selected and sworn.
In the case it was deciding, the California Appellate Court stated: “We independently review the legal question whether the trial court was required to elicit justifications for the first four jurors [the defense attorney] excused … Once the trial court found a prima facie showing of group bias, the court was required to elicit from [the defense attorney] justifications for each of the six challenges forming the basis for the prima facie showing.”
The California Appellate Court held: “In this case, although jury selection took place almost three years ago, as in Johnson, there is a transcript of the jury selection proceeding that will assist the trial court and parties in conducting a further Batson/Wheeler analysis. In addition, the parties’ attorneys may still have their notes from the trial, which [the defense attorney] referenced during his discussion of the reasons he challenged Marquez. On remand the trial court should require defense counsel to provide [his] reasons for challenging the first four prospective jurors (Medina, Quintero, Henriquez, and Villarreal), evaluate the explanations, “and decide whether [Unzueta] has proved purposeful racial discrimination. If the court finds that, due to the passage of time or any other reason, it cannot adequately address the issues at this stage or make a reliable determination, or if it determines that [defense counsel] exercised his peremptory challenges improperly, it should set the case for a new trial. If it finds [defense counsel] exercised his peremptory challenges in a permissible fashion, it should reinstate the judgment.””
Source Unzueta v. Akopyan, B284305.
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