Early last year, a Drew County jury spared the life of a Warren man who murdered his Cleveland County girlfriend outside Monticello grocery store, but Jonathan Woods appealed his murder conviction and life sentence to the Arkansas Supreme Court where he argued that there was racial bias in the jury selection process at his Drew County Circuit Court trial.
He lost the appeal. The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the convictions and sentences.
Woods, 34, pictured above leaving the Drew County Courthouse following his January 2016 trial, was convicted of kidnapping and murdering his 30-year-old girlfriend, Samantha Poole. The state sought the death penalty, but a Drew County jury instead sentenced Woods to life in prison without the possibility of parole for capital murder plus 40 years for kidnapping.
Woods argued at his January 2016 Drew County Circuit Court trial and on his recent appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court that the prosecutor’s decision to use peremptory strikes against the only three black potential jurors in the jury pool was motivated by racial bias, a violation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Batson v. Kentucky.
A peremptory strike is a legal tool that allows attorneys to strike prospective jurors without an explanation.
In order to identify improper racial strikes, the court must take Woods’ objection through a three-step process established in the Batson case. The process is as follows:
First, the person challenging the strike must present facts sufficient to raise an inference of purposeful discrimination. This requires demonstrating that the strike’s opponent is a member of an identifiable racial, the strike is part of a jury-selection process or pattern designed to discriminate, and that the strike was used to exclude jurors because of their race.
Second (and only if the challenger has succeeded on the first step), the trial court must request that the striking party provide a race-neutral explanation for the strike. The explanation “must be more than a mere denial of discrimination or an assertion that a shared race would render the challenged juror partial to the one opposing the challenge.” The explanation, however, “need not be persuasive or even plausible” so long as it is race-neutral.
Third, the trial court must determine whether the strike’s opponent has proven purposeful discrimination based on the evidence and argumentation presented. If the strike’s opponent presents no further evidence of discrimination beyond the initial prima facie case, the court must make its decision solely on the information already presented and its assessment of the credibility of those who presented it.
In Woods’ case, the prosecutor used 10 peremptory strikes. Woods challenged the strikes used against the three black potential jurors. For each of these strikes, Woods’ defense attorney asked for race-neutral explanations, and Circuit Judge Sam Pope told the prosecutor to provide them.
For the first of the three black potential jurors, the prosecutor’s race-neutral explanation focused on three actions by that potential juror:
• she failed to return a jury questionnaire;
• she identified herself as a person belonging to a faith group that believes the death penalty to be morally wrong; and
• she said she did not feel her role was to be “judge or jury.”
At the time of the challenge, the prosecutor argued that Pope’s request for a race-neutral explanation of the peremptory strike against the woman was premature since she was the first of the jurors to be struck, therefore there was no basis on which to argue that the strike was part of a “process or pattern” of discriminatory strikes.
Demonstration of this process or pattern is necessary to the first step of the Batson inquiry, and only successful completion of the first step triggers the need to provide a race-neutral explanation. Pope did not need to reach steps two or three of the Batson inquiry for the strike against the woman.
For the other two strikes, the prosecutor’s race-neutral explanation involved the potential jurors’ answering “B” when asked which of two options (below) more closely matched their views on the death penalty:
A: I believe the death penalty is appropriate in some capital cases and I could return a verdict resulting in death in the proper case; or
B: Although I do not believe that the death penalty should be imposed, as long as the law provides for it, I could assess the death penalty in the proper set of circumstances.
The two jurors were among eight (the remaining six were non-black) who answered “B” to the question. The prosecutor used peremptory strikes against all eight of them. Additionally, one of the two black potential jurors indicated multiple times in both his questionnaire and during jury selection that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness. The other said in her questionnaire that she did not believe the public “should have the power to kill.”
Unlike with the first juror struck, Woods could have at least arguably presented a satisfactory prima facie case to require the prosecutor to provide race-neutral explanations for the remaining two, according to Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Shawn Womack.
Woods cited the 1995 Purkett case for his proposition that ending the Batson inquiry after the second step and simply accepting the prosecutor’s race-neutral explanation is reversible error.
However, Womack said Woods’ application of that rule to his circumstances misunderstands both Purkett and the court’s precedent.
“Purkett held that courts may not combine steps two and three of the Batson inquiry by importing a plausibility requirement to dismiss facially race-neutral explanations without further consideration,” Womack wrote. “Purkett was, in fact, an attempt to reinforce the ultimate rule—favorable to the State in this case—that the opponent of the allegedly discriminatory strike bears the burden of proving discriminatory intent.
“What Woods contends was flippant treatment of his challenges was instead an appropriate application of the Batson inquiry,” Womack wrote. “As we invariably state when reciting the Batson steps, when the opponent of the strike fails to provide any additional argumentation or evidence to demonstrate discriminatory intent, the trial court has no option but to rely on the prima facie showing, the race-neutral explanation, and its own assessment of the credibility of the parties when making a ruling.”
Womack said Woods did not present any additional evidence or arguments after the court requested the proscutor’s race-neutral explanations for strikes of the two remaining black potential jurors.
“Given the absence of evidence of discriminatory intent available, we cannot say that (Pope’s) decision to deny both challenges was clearly against the preponderance of the evidence. Indeed, we have affirmed peremptory strikes based on “B” answers to the exact question cited by the prosecution as race-neutral justification for potential jurors. While the qualified opposition to the death penalty expressed in the provided answer may not have sufficed to strike jurors for cause, it was a sufficient race-neutral explanation to justify the (prosecutor’s) use of one of its limited number of peremptory strikes.”
The Arkansas Supreme Court found no reversible error and the convictions and sentences were affirmed.