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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Ind. Court - Did an Allen County prosecutor violate a local man’s rights by excluding him from a jury partly because he is a pastor?

Niki Kelly of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reports today on an oral argument yesterday before the Indiana Supreme Court. Her report begins:

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Supreme Court on Wednesday considered whether an Allen County prosecutor violated a local man’s rights by excluding him from a jury partly because he is a pastor.

The case originally contested whether he was kicked off because he was black – the only black who appeared for jury duty.

But the prosecutor – in trying to show a race-neutral reason for the dismissal – complicated matters by bringing religion into the mix.

“I don’t think you will ever eliminate prejudice in the courtroom,” said Fort Wayne attorney P. Stephen Miller, who argued the case on behalf of his client. “The best you can do is control it.”

The Indiana Court of Appeals last year essentially established new law in the case by extending the protections against race and gender discrimination in jury selection to religion. The five justices of the Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments to consider whether the first-time, lower-court ruling should stand.

The discussion pertains to the Allen County case of Marshall Highler, in which the appellate court found the U.S. Constitution prohibits the exercise of attorneys using automatic challenges to kick off potential jurors because of their religious affiliation.

Specifically, the ruling said Allen County Deputy Prosecutor Stacey Speith acted improperly when she told the judge she was excusing Herbert Coats, senior pastor at 1st Redeemed by the Blood Church in Fort Wayne, partly because “I never take any pastors, ministers, reverends or priests on my jury panels just because they’re more apt for forgiveness.”

Watch the Jan. 4th oral argument in Marshall Highler v. State here, at the Court's Oral Arguments Online site. Here is the summary from the Cuorts site:
Appellant Marshall Highler was charged with rape as a Class B felony. Before his trial, during voir dire, the prosecutor used a peremptory challenge to strike an African-American pastor from the jury. Highler objected based on Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986) (prohibiting peremptory challenges based on race). The trial court overruled the objection after the prosecutor presented race-neutral reasons for the challenge, which included but were not limited to the potential juror’s being a pastor. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Highler v. State, 2005 WL 2233577, --- N.E.2d --- (Ind. Ct. App. Sept. 15, 2005), vacated. The Supreme Court has granted a petition to transfer the case, thus vacating the opinion of the Court of Appeals, and has assumed jurisdiction over the appeal. The Court has asked the parties to focus their oral presentations on the extension of Batson to peremptory challenges based on religion, and the application of that extension to the facts of this case.
Here is the now vacated Court of Appeals opinion.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 5, 2006 08:04 AM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions