The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals Friday reversed its decision granting convicted capital murder defendant Jason Sharp of Huntsville a new trial on the grounds that prosecutors improperly kept black citizens from the jury.
Sharp was convicted in August 2006 for the January 1999 rape and murder of Tracy Lynn Morris and remains under a death sentence.
In their appeal, Sharp's lawyers raised a "Batson challenge," named after a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision that aimed to ensure jurors are not barred from service because of race. Neither Sharp or the victim are black.
The standard requires attorneys to have "race-neutral" reasons for striking people from the jury pool and be able to prove it.
Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard, who prosecuted the case, was pleased by Friday's decision.
"I'm elated and I'm not surprised as far as the ultimate issue," Broussard said. "I tried the case, there was no unfairness or discrimination toward the defendant. I could not be happier, because in all this mix, this is the guy who brutally raped and killed a girl with a screwdriver."
The murder case took 7 years to go to trial and the appeals process has seen several twists.
Brian Stevenson, executive director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative and who represented Sharp on appeal, was not immediately available for comment Friday.
The Alabama Supreme Court ruled in December 2009 that Broussard had to show prosecutors used race-neutral reasons for striking 11 of the 13 eligible black jurors from the pool, or Sharp would be entitled to a new trial. The defense struck the other 2 eligible blacks.
Circuit Court Judge Laura Hamilton, who presided over the trial, ruled in June 2010 that prosecutors did not discriminate in picking a jury. They had argued a number of the black potential jurors said they opposed or would be reluctant to impose the death penalty, or didn't appear to have the professional or social "sophistication" to comprehend technical DNA evidence.
Broussard said he struck twice as many white potential jurors based on the DNA issue.
The sophistication argument was derided by the defense for appearing to suggest the jurors weren't intelligent enough. And in one instance, a woman with a bachelor's degree from Alabama A&M University was excluded, the defense argued, but 2 white jurors with no college did make the jury.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in February 2011 that the jurors were improperly struck and that Sharp should receive a new trial.
Judge Elizabeth Kellum said the state failed to meet its burden to show there was a "race-neutral" explanation for the strikes of African Americans.
The Alabama Attorney General's Office asked the court to rehear the case. The court reversed its earlier opinion 3-2 after taking a second look at the prosecution's reasoning for striking the black potential jurors.
Presiding Judge Mary Becker Windom and judges Liles Burke and J. Michael Joine, issued an essentially anonymous opinion by the majority. Judges Samuel Henry Welch and Kellum dissented.
(source: The Huntsville Times)