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Inmate prevails in unfair jury battle

It took nearly a quarter-century of legal wrangling, but a California death row inmate convinced a federal appeals court that a racially biased jury convicted him or murder back in 1989. At the original trial, the inmate's attorney challenged the jury selection process, claiming that prosecutors were striking prospective jurors on the basis of their race. The defendant is Hispanic. The judge presiding at that trial asked the prosecutors the reasons for disqualifying some of the jury candidates, but he did not share that information with the defense.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the judge mishandled the jury selection process and that, coupled with losing a portion of the record from the original trial, is enough to overturn the original verdict. The court ordered the inmate released from prison unless the state decides to retry him. In the ruling, the appeals court says that "constitutional error on the part of the state" prevented the defendant from "showing that the prosecution utilized its preemptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner." The resulting conviction and death sentence, the court ruled, was "repugnant to the Constitution."

The California attorney general called the court's decision disappointing and is considering its options. The defendant, who was accused of killing three people during a robbery in 1985, has steadfastly insisted he is innocent. His lawyer says the ruling "upholds what we think is centuries-old precedent, that a criminal defendant has a right to a fair trial and an attorney to represent him at all critical stages of that trial."

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Death row inmate scores victory in the Ninth Circuit," Steve Eder, Aug. 29, 2012

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