Thursday, February 15, 2018

Murder Convictions Reversed Because Jehovah's Witness Juror Excluded

In Pacchiana v. State of Florida, (FL App., Feb. 14, 2018), a Florida appeals court reversed and remanded for a new trial the murder conviction of defendant.  In companion decisions the convictions of Pacchiana's co-defendants were also reversed: Michael Bilotti v. Florida and in Christin Bilotti v. Florida .

In the case, defense counsel raised a Batson challenge to the state's peremptory strike of an African American member of the jury pool.  The state responded that its race-neutral reason for the challenge was that the juror is a Jehovah's Witness.  The prosecution urged that members of that religion often believe that only God judges and they cannot judge.  In the court's primary opinion, Judge Levine wrote:
the state did not provide a “legitimate” race-neutral reason..... During voir dire, the potential juror stated that she would follow the law and gave no indication that she would allow her status as a Jehovah’s Witness to affect her decisionmaking at all. In moving to strike her, the state merely relied on the juror’s membership in a religion without any testimony that it would actually affect her service as a juror, speculating that “any” practicing Jehovah’s Witness would refuse to sit in judgment of others.
Judge Levine went on to conclude that even if this was a valid religion-based challenge, Batson should be extended to religion-based peremptory challenges, as well as racial ones.  He also concluded that:
striking a potential juror from jury service based solely on membership in a religion, no matter what the juror says during voir dire, is an impermissible “religious test” in violation of the United States and Florida Constitutions.
Chief Judge Gerber concurred only in part, concluding that religion is a race-neutral response to a Batson challenge. However he agreed with Judge Levine's other conclusions that made this an impermissible religion-based challenge.  Judge May dissented, concluding that Batson should not be extended to religion-based challenges.  She also concluded that there were sufficient additional reasons given for the challenge to make it race-neutral. However in co-defendant Christin Bilotti's case, she would remand for resentencing.  The Sun Sentinel reports on the decision.