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A man serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend’s child will receive a new trial, after the Court of Appeals determined an Arapahoe County judge improperly responded to the dismissal of a Black man from the jury.

The U.S. Supreme Court has forbidden prosecutors to excuse people from jury service based on their race, and trial judges apply a three-step process to determine whether such an excusal indicates likely discrimination. In this instance, District Court Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr., who is now a state Supreme Court justice, wrongly allowed a prosecutor to offer additional, non-racial justifications for the dismissal during appeal, which went beyond those she offered at trial.

A spokesperson for the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office, which prosecuted the original case, did not have an immediate comment on the ruling, but noted the prosecutors involved are no longer with the office.

A jury convicted Theodore Israel Madrid in 2012 of first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. Madrid argued that the death of his girlfriend’s two-year-old son was an accident while he was babysitting. At the time of his arrest, Madrid told Aurora police he was drunk and high, and that he “body slammed” the toddler while wrestling with him. He received a sentence of life in prison.

A Black man identified as Juror T was in the jury pool for Madrid’s trial. The Arapahoe County prosecutor asked Juror T only four yes-or-no questions over the course of one minute, to which Juror T replied with a single word or only a few words. In response to the prosecutor’s last question, “Do you have a good joke?” Juror T answered: “I’m the joke.”

When the unidentified prosecutor used her ability to strike a juror from the pool without an excuse, known as a peremptory strike, and applied it to Juror T, the defense objected, saying Juror T “was asked a few questions by both parties and he gave very short answers and seemed to be unbiased.”

The prosecutor responded that “we don’t know very much about him. He has a hearing issue it appears and he’s sort of completely nonresponsive.”

She added: “Terribly uncomfortable with him where we have very little information.”

When Madrid appealed his conviction, he argued the prosecution’s decision to excuse Juror T violated U.S. Supreme Court precedent against race-based dismissals. In the landmark Batson v. Kentucky decision, a majority of justices decided that excluding members of one racial group from a jury undermined public confidence in the justice system.

Consequently, defendants may now raise a “Batson challenge” if they suspect a prosecutor is using a peremptory juror strike to get rid of someone based on their race. After the defense raises the issue to a judge, the prosecution has the chance to provide non-racial reasoning for the dismissal. The defense may state additional relevant facts, and the judge decides whether it was more likely than not that discrimination occurred.

At the time, Samour concluded Madrid had not stated a plausible case of discrimination. A subsequent Court of Appeals panel determined Samour’s analysis was lacking, and sent the case back for a more detailed review. Samour again concluded the dismissal of Juror T did not violate Batson.

Madrid appealed again. He argued Samour, after the first appeal, mistakenly allowed the prosecution to offer additional reasoning for dismissing Juror T beyond the facts stated at trial. For example, she now claimed Juror T was slow to take his seat, appeared unhappy to be on the jury and she thought she remembered him sighing. Juror T gave her the impression, she said, of “I don’t want to be here, and I’m not engaging with you.”

The Court of Appeals agreed with Madrid a second time, and Judge Jaclyn Casey Brown explained in a May 27 opinion that the prosecutor’s original reasons for excusing Juror T were not the justifications Samour relied upon during his second analysis of the Batson challenge.

“Of the ten reasons that the court articulated in support of its ruling, seven included reference to Prospective Juror T not wanting to be there,” Brown wrote. Of the three remaining justifications, those “do not relate to the prosecution’s articulated race-neutral reasons for striking Prospective Juror T.”

The appellate panel also criticized Samour for injecting his own reasoning for excusing Juror T. At the time of the Batson challenge, Samour said, “I remember him sort of slowly walking to the front of the courtroom, sort of dragging his feet, and he sort of — and just seeming like he was unhappy that he’d been called.”

“[I]t is improper for a trial court to offer its own race-neutral reason for the prosecution’s use of a peremptory strike,” Brown noted.

The panel clarified that its ruling did not mean the prosecutor actually had racial motivations in striking Juror T. The court reversed Madrid's convictions and ordered a new trial.

Critics of the Batson decision have pointed out how relatively easy it is for prosecutors to think of a non-racial explanation that potentially masks other motivations. However, supporters have argued that Batson challenges may be the strongest method for now of combating racism in the courtroom.

"Batson is a rare invitation for judges — especially appellate judges — to denounce structural discrimination," wrote Jonathan Abel, a former public defender and current professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. "[U]nlike other doctrines, Batson’s automatic-reversal remedy allows judges to attach consequences to their words."

The case is People v. Madrid.

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