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Webster v. State

February 23, 1999

J.W. WEBSTER APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI APPELLEE



Before Bridges, C.j., Payne, And Southwick, JJ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bridges, C.j.,

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 05/22/97 TRIAL JUDGE: HON. KENNETH LEVENE THOMAS COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: COAHOMA COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT

NATURE OF THE CASE: CRIMINAL - FELONY

TRIAL COURT DISPOSITION: MURDER: SENTENCED TO SERVE A TERM OF LIFE IN THE MDOC; DEFENDANT IS ORDERED TO PAY COURT COST IN THE AMOUNT OF $238 & CRIME LAB FEE IN THE AMOUNT OF $600

DISPOSITION: AFFIRMED - 2/23/99

¶1. J.W. Webster was convicted in the Circuit Court of Coahoma County on May 22, 1997, of the crime of murder and was sentenced to serve life imprisonment in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Aggrieved, Webster appeals raising the following issues:

I. THE COURT DEPRIVED THE APPELLANT OF HIS RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL BY DENYING HIS RACE NEUTRAL REASON FOR STRIKING A JUROR AND ALLOWING THE JUROR TO SIT ON THE JURY.

II. THE COURT ERRED IN ADMITTING IMPROPER EVIDENCE OF ANOTHER CRIME.

III. THE COURT FAILED TO PROPERLY INSTRUCT THE JURY.

IV. THE COURT DENIED THE APPELLANT'S RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL DUE TO CUMULATIVE ERRORS.

Finding no error to the issues raised, we affirm.

FACTS

¶2. Webster was indicted and charged with the stabbing and killing of Bennie Rosebur on December 10, 1996. Webster testified that he went to Deloris LeFlore's house on July 5, 1996, to retrieve his lawn mower and several other items. LeFlore, her children, and Rosebur, her boyfriend, were preparing to move her to another house when Webster arrived. According to testimony, an altercation occurred between Webster and Rosebur, and LeFlore told Webster to leave and for her younger son to call the police. LeFlore testified that Webster picked up a beer bottle, but Michael, her oldest son, stepped in between Webster and Rosebur, and Webster was asked to leave. After Michael and Webster went downstairs and Webster allegedly left, Rosebur and Curtis, the younger son, followed. Rosebur then went outside to fix a chair while Curtis stood in the doorway and talked to him. At some point, according to the testimony of both Curtis and LeFlore, Webster was seen exiting the house with a knife. Curtis testified that Webster walked over to Rosebur and stabbed him in the left side of the neck. Curtis stated that he saw Rosebur attempt to stagger away, and Webster appeared to be chasing after him. Curtis then locked the door and ran upstairs. Webster initially tried to re-enter the house, but Curtis refused to let him in. Webster then left the scene, and Curtis and Michael put Rosebur in the car and took him to the hospital. LeFlore testified that she later flagged Webster down as he drove by in his car and stated, "I think you might have killed Bennie." LeFlore stated that Webster's response was that "if he had then he ought to be dead." After the police arrived, LeFlore pointed out Webster to the police, and Webster was given his rights and searched. Webster informed the police that he had been cut with the knife, and he was taken to the hospital for treatment. Webster was subsequently convicted of murdering Rosebur and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

ARGUMENT AND DISCUSSION OF LAW

I. WHETHER THE COURT DENIED THE APPELLANT'S RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL WHEN IT REJECTED A PEREMPTORY STRIKE OF A JUROR, AND ALLOWED THE JUROR TO SIT ON THE JURY.

¶3. Webster argues on appeal that he was denied a fair and impartial trial when the Judge failed to allow him to use a peremptory strike on a white juror ("Juror No. 2"). Webster contends that he gave a race-neutral reason for striking the juror, and the Judge erroneously rejected it. Specifically, Webster stated that he wanted to strike Juror No. 2 because his sister-in-law had sued the company that the juror worked for in a discrimination lawsuit. The State argues that Juror No. 2 stated in voir dire that he did not know either the appellant or his attorney. Furthermore, the State contends that a black juror who shared the relevant characteristic of being an employee of the same company had not been struck. The court held that since the jurors were similarly situated, Webster failed to meet the State's Batson challenge. After the court made its ruling, Webster pointed out that Juror No. 2 worked at the company in a management position while the other juror worked in labor, and that another juror who allegedly was white and also worked for the same company had not been struck. According to the record, neither the State nor the court responded to the statement Webster made regarding racial identification. *fn1

¶4. Two methods exist to enable a prosecutor or a defendant to challenge a prospective juror. The first method is a challenge for cause based on a specific reason that the Judge must find to be legally sufficient. The second method, which necessarily involves a Batson challenge, is a peremptory challenge based on a statutory privilege to remove an otherwise statutorily qualified potential juror. Historically, a peremptory challenge could be exercised without reason, inquiry, or being subject to a court's control. Swain v. Alabama, 380 U.S. 202, 220 (1965), overruled by Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).

¶5. The Mississippi Supreme Court has established the following standard of review to which this Court must adhere when it reviews an allegation of error based on Batson:

[A] reviewing court should give the trial court "great deference." "Great deference" has been defined in the Batson context as insulating from appellate reversal any trial findings which are not clearly erroneous.

[A] trial Judge's factual findings relative to a prosecutor's use of peremptory challenges on minority persons are to be accorded great deference and will not be reversed unless they appear clearly erroneous or against the overwhelming weight of the evidence.

This perspective is wholly consistent with our unflagging support of the trial court as the proper forum for resolution of factual controversies.

Lockett v. State, 517 So. 2d 1346, 1349-50 (Miss. 1987) (citations omitted).

¶6. Under Batson, in order for the defendant to raise a prima facie case that the prosecution has improperly struck a potential juror on the basis of race, it must be shown (1) that he is "a member of a cognizable racial group," and that the prosecution has "exercised peremptory challenges to remove from the venire members of the defendant's race"; (2) that the defendant is entitled to rely on the fact that peremptory challenges allow "those to discriminate who are of a mind to discriminate"; and (3) that "these facts and any other relevant circumstances raise an inference that the [State] used that practice to exclude the veniremen from the petit jury on account of their race." Batson, 476 U.S. at 96. Batson applies to peremptory challenges exercised by both the prosecution and the defendant. Griffin v. State, 610 So. 2d 354, 356 (Miss. 1992).

¶7. Once a defendant has made a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination, the burden then shifts to the State to announce race-neutral reasons for the exclusion of those people from the venire. Batson, 476 U.S. at 97. Where a trial court has ruled that a prosecutor's explanations were valid race-neutral reasons, the reviewing court will assume the prima facie requirement has been met. Lockett, 517 So. 2d at 1349; see also Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352, 359 (1991) ("Once a prosecutor has offered a race-neutral explanation for the peremptory challenges and the trial court has ruled on the ultimate question of intentional discrimination, the preliminary issue of whether the defendant had made a prima facie showing becomes moot."). The State's explanation need not rise to the level of justification as required for a challenge for cause. Harper v. State, 635 So. 2d 864, 867 (Miss. 1994).

¶8. Additionally, the defendant is allowed to rebut the reasons which have been offered by the State. Bush v. State, 585 So. 2d 1262, 1268 (Miss. 1991). However, if the defendant offers no rebuttal, the trial court is forced to examine only the reasons given by the State. Id. The trial court must determine whether a discriminatory intent is inherent in the State's explanation. Lockett, 517 So. 2d at 1350. Additionally, the court must make an on-the-record factual determination of the merits for each of the State's race-neutral reasons for exercising peremptory challenges against potential jurors. Hatten v. State, 628 So. 2d 294, 298 (Miss. 1993). Hatten stated that once the State announces its race-neutral reason for exercising its peremptory challenge, the trial Judge, in determining which explanations are sufficiently race-neutral and which are not, should give an equally "clear and reasonably specific" explanation for his ruling. As we also stated in Lockett, "[t]his perspective is wholly consistent with our unflagging support of the trial court as the proper forum for resolution of factual controversies."

Id. at 299 (quoting Lockett, 517 So. 2d at 1350). When such a determination is made by the trial court, appellate reversal will not occur unless the trial court's findings are clearly erroneous or against the overwhelming weight of the evidence. Bounds v. State, 688 So. 2d 1362, 1367 (Miss. 1997). "Race-neutral explanations satisfy Batson, but only when they are not a smoke screen which a party is exercising to mask a discriminatory challenge." Griffin v. State, 607 So. 2d 1197, 1203 (Miss. 1992). One of the reasons the trial court is granted such deference when a Batson challenge is raised is because the demeanor of the attorney making the challenge is often the best evidence on the issue of race neutrality. Hernandez, 500 U.S. at 365. The credibility of the one making the challenge is often decisive. Id.

¶9. In the case sub judice, Webster exercised his first five peremptory challenges on white jurors. Webster then attempted to strike Juror No. 2, and the State objected challenging the strike under Batson and its progeny. It is this Court's finding that determination of whether a prima facie case exists must focus on whether Webster was excluding all or almost all of the potential white jurors. Since that occurred here, an explanation was required. Webster then gave his explanation for striking Juror No. 2, and the court rejected it holding that it was not race-neutral. Webster attempted to further justify the strike, but the court refused to change its ruling.

ΒΆ10. As stated above, trust is placed in a trial Judge to determine whether or not a discriminatory motive drives the reasons given for striking a potential juror. The determination of discriminatory intent will likely turn on a trial Judge's evaluation of a presenter's credibility and whether an explanation should be believed. Id.; Batson, 476 U.S. at 98. Thus, trial courts are given great deference in their findings of fact surrounding a Batson challenge. Lockett, 517 So. 2d at 1350. This deference specifically includes a trial Judge's determination of any racially discriminatory motive underlying ...


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