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Criminal Defense Attorneys

Juror Excusal Because Belief System Unfair to Blacks?

On May 5, 2017, Kejhonne M. Henderson’s girlfriend S.S. drove him to a house party in the North Highlands area of Sacramento also known as “the Heights.”  The host of the party was one of Henderson’s former friends, M.L.  When S.S. pulled up, she saw a crowd of people outside the party location, including M.L’s mother.  S.S. parked her car, walked up and gave M.L.’s mother a hug before entering the house.

When S.S. walked into the house with Henderson, a song by Mozzy was playing.  Mozzy is a rapper and validated member of the Fourth Avenue Bloods from Oak Park.  His lyrics disparage rival Del Paso Heights Bloods gang members and people from the Heights, so people from the Heights do not like his music.

Henderson told M.L., in reference to the Mozzy music, “turn that sucka shit off” and “strictly two Del Paso Heights.”  M.L. did so, but then J.P. confronted Henderson, apparently upset that the song was turned off and Henderson said, “Let’s step outside.”  Henderson apparently understood J.P.’s invitation to step outside as J.P.’s way of saying he was a member of the Fourth Avenue Bloods and he wanted to confront Henderson as a rival gang member.

As they stepped outside, Henderson shot J.P. multiple times, including in the back of his head and lower back.  Three rounds were shot while J.P. was still standing and another five or six were shot after J.P. fell to the ground.  One of J.P.’s friends, A.J., chased Henderson and tackled him to the ground, knocking the gun out of his hand.  Henderson, however, managed to pick up the gun and shot A.J. three times before running away.  M.L.’s mother was also shot in the calf.  She and A.J. survived, but J.P. died at the scene.

A Sacramento jury found Henderson guilty of second-degree murder (Penal Code § 187) and one count of attempted murder (Penal Code §§ 664 / 187) and found true enhancement allegations that Henderson personally discharged a firearm causing great bodily injury or death (Penal Code § 12022.53(d)) as to each count.  The trial court judge, Stacey Eurie Boulware, sentence defendant to serve an aggregate determinate term of seven years plus an aggregate indeterminate prison term of 65 years to life.

Henderson appealed, arguing many mistakes were made during his trial, but the scope of this article will narrow down to his argument that the trial court abused its discretion and violated his federal constitutional right to a jury drawn from a representative cross-section of the community by excusing two African-American prospective jurors for cause based on their stated belief that the criminal justice system treats African Americans unfairly and because they were sympathetic toward defendant.

The appeal was filed in the California Court of Appeal for the Third District, which held a trial court may not excuse for cause African-American jurors for cause solely because of their belief that the criminal justice system treats African-Americans unfairly, but here, the two jurors at issue were dismissed because, based on voir dire evidence (their responses to questions from attorneys and the judge while selecting a jury), they could not be impartial because of their bias and sympathy for defendant.

Prospective Juror 1 stated that she had concerns with law enforcement in general and that she was worried for her four young adult sons and any interactions they might have with law enforcement.  When asked if she would be swayed to be more sympathetic to Henderson, she responded, “[p]robably, because he’s probably about my children’s age.  So it’s possible.” 

Prospective Juror 5 stated that she would have similar feelings, but that they would not probably not sway her opinion of the evidence.

Prospective Juror 9 expressed similar feelings, but also admitted that those feelings would likely impact her deliberations.

The judge excused Potential Jurors 1 and 9, but not Potential Juror 5.

The Third District did not find the trial court judge abused her discretion and defendant’s constitutional right to a jury drawn from a representative cross-section of the community was not violated.  The appellate court found that Potential Jurors 1 and 9 demonstrated actual bias, so the judge properly excused each juror. 

Actual bias includes a state of mind which will prevent the juror from acting with entire impartiality and without prejudice to the substantial rights of any party.  The belief that the criminal justice system is unfair to African Americans is, alone, an insufficient basis to disqualify a juror.  Here, the two prospective jurors stated their deliberations would be swayed by Henderson’s similarities to their loved ones or other sympathies.

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