Burlington County, NJ Law Blog

Saturday, September 13, 2014

New Trial for Convicted Murderer After Judge's Misstep in Jury Selection Probe

Saladin Thompson had been serving a 67-year sentence for the 2005 murder of one person and wounding of two others.  Now the New Jersey Appellate Division has granted him a new trial, because the trial court failed to examine allegations of racial discrimination in the jury selection process.

Prosecutors had used nine peremptory challenges to disqualify jurors at his trial.  Seven of the nine involved African Americans.  In the end, the jury panel that heard the case included five African Americans.

In 2010, the Appellate Division ordered the lower court to undertake a fact-finding hearing on the peremptory challenges.  The judge was supposed to follow a three-step procedure spelled out in a 1986 New Jersey decision, State v. Gilmore.  In its latest ruling, the appellate division concluded that, in the fact-finding hearing, held in 2011, the judge overlooked a critical step.  

First, according to Gilmore, there must be a prima facie case of discrimination by the prosecutor in jury selection.  In the Appellate Division's view, this requirement was met.  

Second, the prosecutor must be allowed to explain each of peremptory challenges.  In the 2011 hearing, the prosecutor did that, giving a variety of non-discriminatory reasons for its challenge of each juror.  

Third, the judge is supposed analyze the circumstances behind each challenge and state reasons for agreeing with either the prosecutor or defense counsel.  In 2011, the judge failed in this and, instead, according to the Appellate Division, accepted the prosecutor's reasons "wholesale."

Now, seven years after the original trial and conviction, the Appellate Division has found that it is too late to remand the case for further hearings on jury selection.  Thompson will receive a new trial.

The case is a lesson in the important procedural requirements that prosecutors and judges must meet during a criminal trial.  A judge must review the prosecutor's peremptory challenges thoughtfully and thoroughly to ensure that the defendant receives a fair trial.  It is the job of defense counsel to make sure the prosecutor and judge do not take shortcuts.

The experienced criminal defense attorneys at Sitzler & Sitzler fight hard to make sure that a case is tried on the merits and that prosecutors are not allowed to pack the court with unsympathetic jurors.  If you have been accused of a crime or worry you might be, call (609) 267-1101 today for a free consultation.

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