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No Racial Discrimination in Removing Hispanic Jurors

Jaime Hoyos and his brother-in-law and co-defendant Jorge Emilio Alvarado were found guilty in San Diego County Superior Court in 1994 of murdering Daniel and Mary Magoon in their San Diego home in 1992. 

In a joint trial, Hoyos and Alvarado were each convicted of two counts of first-degree murder pursuant to Penal Code § 187.  The jury acquitted both of attempted murder, but convicted both of assault with a firearm for injuring the Magoon’s three-year-old son.  Hoyos and Alvarado were also convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery, first-degree robbery, burglary, grand theft of a firearm and transporting over 28.5 grams of marijuana.

The jury returned a verdict of death for Hoyos’ murder of Mary Magoon and life without the possibility of parole for his murder of Daniel Magoon.

Jaime Hoyos filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, arguing that the prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenges in selecting the jury violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection pursuant to Batson v. Kentucky (1986) 476 U.S. 79 by dismissing three Hispanic prospective jurors, Margaret A., Lisa H. and Yolanda M.

During voir dire, the judge asked Margaret A. if the case was one on which she would like to serve.  She responded, “Not enough English.”  She also answered “Yes” to questions whether she had trouble understanding or speaking English and whether she spoke and understood Spanish.  She also told the judge, “I don’t speak English that well and I don’t understand a lot of words that you are saying.”  Both defense counsel and the prosecution challenged Margaret for cause, but the judge declined to excuse her for cause and told the parties that they could “deal with” her using peremptory challenges.

Lisa H. wrote in her juror questionnaire that she “believed in the death penalty, but only in certain instances.”  When asked if she could keep an open mind, she responded, “I think I can, but I would have to be real[ly] convinced that it [death penalty] outweighed it [life in prison] heavily.” 

Yolanda M. wrote in her jury questionnaire that “I don’t feel I could be part of a jury if the impose the death penalty.”  She then told Alvarado’s counsel, when asked further, that she had strong religious beliefs against the death penalty, but that she could put those feelings aside.  The prosecutor asked the judge to dismiss Yolanda M. for cause because she stated she could not impose the death penalty.  The judge denied the request for cause.

The prosecution later used three of his peremptory challenges to dismiss each of the jurors descried and Alvarado’s counsel objected, citing People v. Wheeler (Cal. 1978) 583 P.3d 748, arguing that the prosecution dismissed Margaret A. because she was of “Mexican ancestry” like the defendants.  Alvarado’s counsel likewise argued that the prosecution’s peremptory dismissal of Yolanda M. and Lisa H. were similarly motivated. 

Hoyos’ counsel joined the motion but did not offer any additional reasons or arguments to support the defendants’ prima facie showing.

The prosecution argued that the three jurors of Mexican ancestry were not excluded for any bias against Mexicans because one of the jurors, Pablo G., on the panel was of Mexican descent and one of the alternative jurors was as well. 
The U.S. District Court judge in San Diego denied the defense Wheeler / Batson motion.  The judge explained that the defense had not established a prima facie case, but even if it had, the prosecution excused each of the jurors for a valid, race-neutral reason.  The prosecution used a peremptory challenge of Margaret A. because of her difficulty understanding English, Yolanda M. because of her stated difficulties with imposing the death penalty, and Lisa H.’s preference for life in prison rather than a death sentence.

Mr. Hoyos then appealed the district court ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena.  
The Ninth Circuit first laid out the relevant applicable law on the issue, which is a three-step process, as stated in Johnson v. California (2005) 545 U.S. 162, 168:
“First, the defendant must make out a prima facie case by showing that the totality of the relevant facts gives rise to an inference of discriminatory purpose.  Second, once the defendant has made out a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the State to explain adequately the racial exclusion by offering permissible race-neutral justifications for the strikes.  Third, if a race-neutral explanation is tendered, the trial court must then decide whether the opponent of the strike has proved purposeful racial discrimination.”
The Ninth Circuit explained that Batson was designed to provide “actual answers to suspicions” about racial bias.  Thus, once a defendant demonstrates an inference of racial discrimination, the trial court must give the prosecutor an opportunity to explain his actual reasoning. 

In Hoyos’ case, the trial court found that defendants had not made a prima facie showing at Step One.  The Ninth Circuit agreed that defendants had not produced sufficient evidence to permit the trial court to draw an inference that discrimination had occurred.

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