Death Penalty Reversed Over Black Juror Exclusion

Reversal of the 1989 double murder conviction and death sentence in the killing of a Chico doctor and his wife has been upheld based on the prosecutor’s exclusion of the only African-American in the jury pool.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 vote Monday, affirmed a decision that reversed the death sentence of Steven Crittenden for the 1987 stabbing deaths of 67-year-old Dr. William Chiapella and his 66-year-old wife, Katherine.

The majority opinion, by Judge Raymond Fisher, held that the trial judge was not clearly wrong in finding the prosecutor’s exclusion on the single black juror in a pool of 60 potential jurors was racially motivated.

Crittenden, who is black, had challenged the jury selection, first to the California Supreme Court, which rejected his claim.

The prosecution challenged he racial assumption, pointing to the black jurors response to a jury questionnaire about the death penalty in which she said she didn’t want to see anyone put to death but could set aside her personal feelings.  The prosecutor argued she was opposed to the death penalty and that was sufficient cause to exclude her.

In a federal habeas appeal challenging the constitutionally of his conviction based on jury selection, a federal judge in Sacramento reversed his conviction in 2013.  The appeals court upheld the ruling.

In dissent, Judge Margaret McKeown said she would have deferred to the state trial court’s initial determination that the elimination of the potential black juror was not race-based.

Based on the majority holding, Crittenden is entitled to a new trial.  Fisher was joined by Judge Marsha Berzon in the majority.

Case:  Crittenden v. Chappell, No. 13-17327


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