April 16, 2024


The Legal System

State Supreme Court to hear criminal appeals involving racial bias, jury instructions | Courts


The Colorado Supreme Court agreed to review whether an Arapahoe County judge, who is now a justice on the state’s highest court, correctly handled a potentially race-based dismissal of a Black juror, and whether jurors in an Adams County criminal trial should have received the definition of a key legal term — even though there is no definition in state law.

On Monday, the court announced it would hear two criminal appeals, one of which involves the work of Justice Carlos A. Samour, Jr. from his time as a district court judge.

Two members of the court also indicated they would have granted review of another case out of El Paso County involving the defendant’s statements to out-of-state law enforcement officers. However, three justices must agree to hear an appeal.

The first case out of Arapahoe County calls for the Supreme Court to better define the contours of how trial judges apply Batson v. Kentucky, the 1986 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that deemed intentional racial discrimination in jury selection unconstitutional. When one party in the courtroom attempts to strike, or excuse, a juror, the other party may raise a “Batson challenge,” which requires that non-racial reasons be given for striking the juror of color. 

Trial judges must weigh those reasons and determine whether purposeful discrimination is likely taking place. Critics of Batson challenges argue that it is easy for lawyers to fabricate race-neutral explanations, and that the process does not account for juror dismissals that may hinge on implicit bias.

A jury convicted Theodore Israel Madrid in 2012 for first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in the death of a two-year-old boy. Prosecutors said Madrid was drunk and high while babysitting, and he slammed the child in a way that caused fatal injuries. Madrid maintained the death was an accident.

At the trial, a Black man identified as Juror T was in the jury pool. An unnamed prosecutor asked Juror T three questions about whether he would have any trouble serving in the case, to which Juror T answered, “No.”

“Do you have a good joke?” the prosecutor asked in closing.

“I’m the joke,” Juror T responded.

The prosecutor attempted to excuse Juror T, but the defense raised a Batson challenge. For her race-neutral reasons, the prosecutor suggested that “the real problem is we don’t know very much about him.” She claimed she had “no time to really have a very detailed conversation” with Juror T.

“Terribly uncomfortable with him,” the prosecutor added.

Samour, the trial judge, denied the Batson challenge after finding the defense had not sufficiently raised the possibility of racial discrimination.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with that conclusion and returned the case to Samour, ordering him to evaluate “additional evidence and allow further argument.” During the new hearing, Samour indicated he felt required to accept reasons for the strike of Juror T that were not necessarily given at trial.

The same prosecutor reiterated that she did not have much information about Juror T, but also stated that the man was slow to take his seat, sighed, and appeared displeased and disengaged to be there. Madrid’s lawyer pointed out that several of the race-neutral reasons offered were new.

Samour once again found no racial discrimination at work, but the Court of Appeals disagreed once more. A three-judge appellate panel in May of last year took issue with Samour’s heavy reliance on the prosecutor’s new rationale for excusing Juror T.

“Because we find it impossible to parse the district court’s ruling — to separate its reliance on the justifications the prosecution articulated at trial from its reliance on the impermissible post-remand justifications — we must reverse the judgment of conviction and remand for a new trial,” wrote Judge Jaclyn Casey Brown for the panel.

The Court of Appeals also chastised Samour for offering his own non-racial explanations to justify the strike of Juror T. In February, the Supreme Court reversed the convictions of another man in a Denver case, finding the trial judge had improperly injected reasons for striking a Hispanic juror, when those reasons were solely the prosecutor’s to provide.

The Supreme Court, by reviewing the Court of Appeals’ ruling in Madrid’s case, will decide whether trial judges may consider additional evidence whenever Batson challenges are remanded for further analysis. Samour did not participate in the decision on whether to hear the appeal.

The case is People v. Madrid.

In the second case, Cristobal Fernando Garcia fired a gun three times at his girlfriend and her sister. Although neither woman was hurt, prosecutors charged Garcia with attempted first degree murder. 

An Adams County jury convicted him on one count of attempted extreme indifference murder, which requires someone to cause a grave risk of death “under circumstances evidencing an attitude of universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.”

State law does not define “universal malice,” nor do the model jury instructions for criminal cases. Garcia’s lawyer attempted to give Garcia’s jury an instruction defining universal malice as a “depravity of the human heart which determines to take a life upon slight or insufficient provocation, without knowing or caring who may be the victim.” District Court Judge Don Quick declined to show the definition to jurors.

A Court of Appeals panel believed no definition of universal malice was necessary, deciding that the phrase, in “the ordinary sense,” indicates a willingness to do harm without justification.

Garcia appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the definition of universal malice has shifted over time, meaning there could be no common understanding of what it means. The Supreme Court will examine whether jurors must hear a definition when deciding on a case of extreme indifference murder.

The case is Garcia v. People.

Finally, the court declined to take up an appeal out of El Paso County in which the defendant, Eric William Grant, murdered a Colorado Springs store owner during a robbery.

Under Colorado’s criminal procedures, the prosecution must disclose statements made to the police in a timely fashion. However, the prosecution did not learn until the seventh day of Grant’s trial that he had told a law enforcement officer in Philadelphia, where he was arrested, “I’m on the run from Colorado.”

A three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals determined that such a delayed disclosure did, in fact, violate the procedural rules. But a hearing the trial court judge held about whether to suppress Grant’s statement was, in the panel’s view, a correct way to rectify the problem. Grant’s jury ultimately heard about the incriminating statement from Philadelphia.

Both Grant and the government appealed to the Supreme Court. The defense asked the justices to review the appellate court’s conclusion that the suppression hearing was satisfactory, while the prosecution challenged the finding of a violation in the first place.

Justices William W. Hood III and Richard L. Gabriel indicated they would have accepted the appeal solely to address the question Grant raised.


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