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Md. court reverses assault conviction, cites race-based juror exclusion

Cecil County prosecutors unconstitutionally struck the lone prospective Black juror from an assault case because of her race, Maryland’s second-highest court ruled Friday in overturning the conviction of the defendant, who is also Black.

In it reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals said the state provided no “credible, racially neutral rationale” for having excluded the would-be juror.

The appellate court rejected as incredible the prosecution’s argument that the woman was rejected not because of her race but due to her possible bias against prosecutors because her mother was a crime victim and her assailant was never convicted. The court said two other prospective jurors – both White – had disclosed during jury selection similar victimhood in unprosecuted crimes but they were not dismissed by the prosecution.

“In summary, we conclude the trial court erred when it permitted the exclusion of the sole Black juror in the venire (jury pool) based on the state’s inconsistent rationale,” Judge Gregory Wells wrote for the Court of Special Appeals.

“The state’s reason for excluding the Black juror was: Because the juror’s mother was the victim in an unsuccessful robbery prosecution 20 years ago, the Black juror would not be fair to the state,” Wells added in sending the case back for a new trial. “That same rationale, if fairly applied, would have also disqualified two White jurors who were seated. The removal of the only Black juror ensured that an all-White jury would try a Black defendant.”

The Court of Special Appeals decision marked its latest application of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 Batson v. Kentucky decision barring the prosecution from excluding prospective jurors solely because of their race.

Determining the validity of defense counsel’s Batson challenge to the prosecution’s striking of a would-be juror is a three-part test that begins with an initial contention that the exclusion was race-based, the Court of Special Appeals said.

The prosecution must then provide a “clear and reasonably specific” race-neutral explanation for the exclusion. Finally, the trial judge must determine the credibility of the state’s explanation  in light of its acceptance of other would-be jurors and prosecutorial strategy, the appellate court added.

In this case, Bryan Bennett was on trial in Cecil County Circuit Court for allegedly assaulting and conspiring to rob a teenage boy of his cellphone in February 2019.

After jury selection, Bennett’s defense counsel objected to the prosecution’s striking of the only Black member of the pool, identified in court papers as juror No. 13. Defense counsel said the prospective juror had said nothing that would have provided a reason for her exclusion.

The prosecution defended its action, saying it “was concerned that the lack of conviction and perhaps follow through from law enforcement would lead her to have either distrust in the prosecutor’s office or in law enforcement.”

Defense counsel countered, saying under that rationale, the prosecution should also have excused two White jurors: one, identified as No. 4, who claimed to have been a crime victim just two weeks earlier for which no one was arrested, and another, identified as No. 27, whose in-laws had been burglarized 10 years earlier.

The trial judge overruled the defense’s objection, saying the prosecution race-neutral explanation was sufficient.

The jury found Bennett guilty of second-degree assault and conspiracy to commit robbery, and he was sentenced to four years in prison. Bennett sought review by the Court of Special Appeals.

In overturning the conviction, the appellate court said the prosecution would have excused the two White jurors (Nos. 4 and 27) more readily than the prospective Black juror (No. 13) had the concern truly been about bias against the prosecution rather than the racial composition of the jury. The court noted the crimes involving the White jurors had occurred much more recently.

“(T)he salient facts for juror number 13 are that the crime was one in which her mother was the victim, who, like the other victims, had something taken from her without a weapon, and the outcome was unfavorable or unknown,” Wells wrote.

“Juror number 13’s experience was, thus, in several ways similar to that of juror number four but occurred much further back in time – approximately double the amount of time as juror number 27 and  520 times the amount as juror number four,” Wells added. “We stress that in evaluating a Batson challenge, the trial court should examine not only the credibility of the striking attorney, but also the credibility of the attorney’s proffered, racially neutral reason. Here, a credible, racially neutral rationale is lacking.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office, which represented the state on appeal, declined to comment on the Court of Special Appeals decision and on any plans to seek review by the Court of Appeals.

Assistant Maryland Public Defender Allison P. Brasseaux, Bennett’s appellate counsel, did not immediately comment Monday on the Court of Special Appeals ruling.

Cecil County State’s Attorney James A. Dellmyer, whose office handled Bennett’s prosecution, did not immediately return a telephone message Monday seeking comment on the decision.

Wells was joined in the opinion by Judges Kevin F. Arthur and Patrick L. Woodward, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

The Court of Special Appeals issued its decision in Bryan Bennett v. State of Maryland, No. 1756, September Term 2019.