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People v. Beauvais

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

April 24, 2017

The People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner:
Heather Beauvais. Respondent:

         Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 13CA665

          Attorneys for Petitioner: Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General Kevin E. McReynolds, Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado.

          Attorney for Respondent: Michelle Lee Lazar Denver, Colorado.

          Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Colorado Criminal Defense Bar: Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and University of Colorado School of Law Margaret Ann England Scott Adam Moss Boulder, Colorado.



         ¶1 This case concerns the third step of the analysis laid out in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), which requires trial courts to determine whether a party raising a Batson objection proved by a preponderance of the evidence that opposing counsel exercised a peremptory challenge to excuse a potential juror on the basis of race or gender. Specifically, we consider whether the court of appeals erred in its review of the trial court's Batson ruling by: (1) remanding for specific credibility findings of the prosecution's non-demeanor-based reasons for its peremptory challenges, (2) refusing to credit the prosecution's demeanor-based reasons because the trial court did not expressly find them to be credible, and (3) conducting flawed comparative juror analyses.[1]

         ¶2 First, we hold that an appellate court conducting a clear error review should defer to a trial court's ultimate Batson ruling so long as the record reflects that the trial court weighed all of the pertinent circumstances and it supports the court's conclusion as to whether the objecting party proved purposeful discrimination by a preponderance of the evidence. Second, we hold that a trial court's failure to make specific credibility findings about demeanor-based reasons does not-on its own-prevent a reviewing court from concluding that the trial court credited those reasons. Third, we hold that appellate courts may conduct comparative juror analyses despite an objecting party's failure to argue a comparison to the trial court, but only where the record facilitates a comparison of whether the jurors are similarly situated. An empaneled juror is similarly situated to a dismissed potential juror for the purposes of an appellate court's comparative juror analysis if the empaneled juror shares the same characteristics for which the striking party dismissed the potential juror.

         ¶3 We conclude that the trial court here did not commit clear error in step three of its Batson analysis and that remand is unnecessary. We therefore reverse the judgment of the court of appeals.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶4 The People charged Heather Beauvais with extortion and three counts of stalking in connection with her repeated attempts to contact a man whom she met on the internet. The matter proceeded to a jury trial. To begin jury selection, the court seated twenty-five potential jurors in the jury box and placed the remainder of the venire in the back of the courtroom in the order that they would be called to replace jurors who were later excused. During jury selection, potential jurors provided some basic information about their families, occupations, prior jury service, and connections to people working in law enforcement. The court informed the venire of applicable legal concepts, inquired about any hardships the jurors might suffer if selected to serve, and asked the jurors about their willingness to take an oath to follow the law. The parties then conducted voir dire of the twenty-five jurors in the jury box. The parties agreed to excuse six potential jurors-three women and three men-for cause or hardship. As the court excused each person, the potential juror from the back of the courtroom who was next in order entered the jury box and assumed the excused juror's seat. The trial court asked each of these replacements to answer the initial background questions and then allowed the parties to question them.

         ¶5 After both sides passed the jurors for cause, the trial court gave each side the opportunity to exercise its peremptory challenges. Each party had six available peremptory challenges and, beginning with the prosecution, alternated as they excused jurors one by one.[2] The parties could only use a peremptory challenge on the first thirteen jurors seated in the box. When a party excused a potential juror using a peremptory challenge from the first thirteen positions, the next potential juror in line from the remaining jurors would assume that juror's number and seat. As a result, the parties knew who the replacement juror would be when they exercised a peremptory challenge. As the parties exercised each peremptory challenge, the court released the excused potential jurors from jury duty and allowed them to leave the courtroom.

         ¶6 The prosecution excused a total of five jurors, all of whom were women, while Beauvais excused six jurors, all of whom were men. The final jury consisted of nine male and three female jurors, with a female alternate juror. The record indicates that the last potential juror in the jury box, who was not empaneled because the prosecution did not exercise its final peremptory challenge, was also female.

         ¶7 Beauvais objected under Batson after the prosecution's third, fourth, and fifth uses of its peremptory challenges, arguing that the prosecution's decision to excuse only women established a prima facie case of discrimination. The trial court deferred ruling on the objections until both sides finished using their peremptory challenges. At that point, Beauvais highlighted that, although thirteen of the thirty-one potential jurors in the initial venire were women, only four would serve on the jury because the court had excused three for cause or hardship, the prosecution had peremptorily excused five, and one was never empaneled because the prosecution had waived its final challenge. Finally, Beauvais also argued that none of the excused women had given responses that would indicate a pro-defendant bias, while some had even given responses traditionally considered favorable to the prosecution.

         ¶8 The prosecutor began his response by admitting that it had been some time since he had encountered Batson and that he had "never heard it [argued] in terms of gender." He contended that, in any event, Beauvais had failed to make a prima facie showing of discrimination that would warrant a full Batson analysis because four women (including the alternate) remained on the jury.

         ¶9 The trial court disagreed. Recognizing that the prosecution had exercised all of its peremptory challenges to excuse women, the court found that Beauvais had established a prima facie case of discrimination and, proceeding to step two of Batson, required the prosecution to provide gender-neutral reasons for its challenges. In response, the prosecutor offered several reasons for each peremptory challenge:

Juror [S.B.], looked disinterested[3] during the questioning. She offered no- she never raised her hand for any issue. Never nodded when another juror spoke and oftentimes was looking away from me during my questioning looking at her watch. She appeared to me to be young and had no kids.
Juror [L.G.], during the period when we were waiting for the remainder of the jurors to come back[, ] she was in the back of the courtroom and she was coughing heavily. I don't know if she was sick. She never indicated on the record that she was sick. But that was the impression I got.
Her husband is in the legal field. She has two daughters. One of which she said was stalked. I think it is inappropriate to have someone whose family member so closely alleged to have been a victim of the same crime that we're charging here.
Juror [K.G.], is in college. . . . Has no kids. Appeared to be young. And it sounds as though she had a relationship with a large amount of law enforcement officers from the community from which she came to Denver.
Juror [A.B.], is also in college. Appeared to me to be young. Does not have any kids and did not expand on any of her comments when asked specifically about what we had spoken with [sic] prior to her getting on the panel. She seemed dead pan to me and gave no detailed explanations of why she was saying yes or no.
Juror [J.T.], also currently in college. . . . She also appeared young. Appeared disinterested. Did not volunteer any answers to my questions, although I tried to make eye contact with her to engage her in conversation. She never raised her hand or volunteered any information.

         ¶10 The trial court then gave Beauvais an opportunity to respond to the prosecution's reasons. Beauvais argued that many of the prosecution's reasons were pretextual. As relevant here, Beauvais first asserted that four men on the jury did not have children, even though the prosecution partially based its challenges to three female potential jurors on this same trait. Second, as to the prosecution's reason that four female jurors appeared young or were attending college, Beauvais argued that three male jurors who were slated to serve on the jury also appeared young and "college age." Third, Beauvais stated that the prosecution "did not inquire as to [L.G.'s] health" and thus could not rely upon that reason for excusing her. Finally, Beauvais asserted that the prosecution's decision to waive its last peremptory challenge showed purposeful discrimination because exercising that challenge would have replaced a male juror with a female one. Beauvais did not comment on the demeanor of any of the jurors or in any way build a record as to juror demeanor.

         ¶11 The trial court asked if the prosecution wished to respond to Beauvais's arguments comparing certain male jurors to the dismissed female jurors. The prosecution noted that each of its peremptory challenges stemmed from the combination of several reasons, not just each reason individually: "When you look at each individual juror and the collection of reasons that each was stricken[, ] that puts them in a different situation than any other particular juror on the panel." The trial court indicated that it would begin the orientation process for the jury and then take a recess to consider Beauvais's Batson challenge before making its step-three ruling. Beauvais did not address the combination-of-factors argument the prosecution advanced, nor did she take a final opportunity to make a record about the excused jurors' demeanor.

         ¶12 After the orientation and a recess, the trial court called the parties back into the courtroom and, outside the presence of the jury, issued its Batson ruling. "Ultimately, " it stated, "if either side were systematically or intentionally or purposefully attempting to discriminate against jurors because of race or religion or gender[, ] that would be unacceptable in this courtroom and I would take that very seriously." Addressing the prosecution's peremptory challenges specifically, the trial court noted that it seemed that all of the potential jurors could be impartial and that the prosecution's reasons for exercising its challenges were "not strong." However, the court emphasized that the factors for exercising peremptory challenges are "subtle, " making it difficult to rule on a Batson challenge and find purposeful discrimination. With these observations in mind, the trial court overruled Beauvais's Batson objection, stating that while it had "concerns given the nature and the outcome and the circumstances, " Beauvais "h[ad] not established there was purposeful discrimination."

         ¶13 The jury ultimately found Beauvais guilty of one count of felony stalking under section 18-3-602(1)(c), C.R.S. (2016), and not guilty of the other charges. Beauvais appealed, arguing that the trial court had erred in overruling her Batson objections.

         ¶14 The majority of a division of the court of appeals concluded that the record was insufficient to facilitate review and thus remanded the case to the trial court to make additional findings under step three of Batson. People v. Beauvais, 2014 COA 143, ¶¶ 3-9, ___ P.3d ___. Specifically, the majority stated that it could not determine whether it was clear error for the trial court to rely on the female potential jurors' age, college attendance, or apparent sickness because, while these characteristics were "objectively verifiable and could potentially form the basis of a legitimate peremptory challenge, " the trial court had "made no findings regarding the potential jurors' ages or health, and there is nothing in the record to show whether the trial court believed that the prosecutor sought to excuse any of them because they were college students." Id. at ¶ 19. Therefore, the court of appeals directed the trial court on remand to make specific credibility findings about these three justifications. Id. at ¶ 20.

         ¶15 The majority also concluded that the prosecution's other gender-neutral reasons were incredible and raised an inference of purposeful discrimination. Id. at ¶¶ 11-20. In doing so, the majority explained that under Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472 (2008), it could not "presume the trial court found [the prosecution's demeanor-based reasons] to be credible"-and therefore could not credit them on appeal-because the trial court had not made express credibility findings for each of those reasons. Id. at ¶ 18 (citing Snyder, 552 U.S. at 485). Additionally, the majority stated that "[s]ome of the reasons the prosecutor offered for excusing female potential jurors . . . applied equally to many male potential jurors in the venire, " which suggested that the prosecutor's reasons were pretextual. Id. at ¶ 12 (discussing male jurors who had prior experiences with stalking, who were childless, or who had friends in law enforcement).

         ¶16 In sum, the majority held that: (1) remand was necessary for the trial court to explicitly find whether the gender-neutral reasons of youth, college attendance, and apparent sickness were credible; (2) it could not infer that the trial court found the demeanor-based reasons credible given the lack of specific findings; and (3) the non-demeanor-based reasons that applied equally to male jurors were incredible and raised an inference of purposeful discrimination.

         ¶17 The dissent disputed the majority's conclusions regarding the necessity of remand and the inference of purposeful discrimination. Id. at ¶ 26 (Bernard, J., concurring in part, specially concurring in part, and dissenting in part). In the dissent's view, the majority failed to accord the trial court proper deference when the majority first rejected many of the prosecution's reasons for excusing the female potential jurors and then concluded the record was insufficient for lack of express credibility findings. Id. at ¶¶ 26, 34-35. The dissent acknowledged that the trial court could have made more specific findings to explain why it had found the prosecutor's gender-neutral explanations credible. Id. at ¶ 40. However, the dissent reasoned that the trial court's step-three analysis was sufficient because its "unambiguous finding means only one thing . . . in the context of this case: The trial court implicitly chose to believe the prosecutor, which was a choice that was 'peculiarly within [its] province.'" Id. at ¶¶ 40-44 (alteration in original) (quoting Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352, 365 (1991) (plurality opinion)). For the dissent, it was "obvious that the trial court took this issue seriously, " id. at ¶ 37, and that the trial court drew upon its personal observations of the process in making "the call that it thought was right, " id. at ¶ 48. The dissent concluded that the majority, and other appellate courts, "should not second-guess that call because we have not seen what the trial court saw, or heard what the trial court heard." Id. at ¶¶ 46-48.

         ¶18 We granted certiorari and now reverse the court of appeals.

         II. Law

         ¶19 We begin our analysis by outlining Batson's three-step analysis for determining whether a party's use of peremptory challenges was motivated by purposeful discrimination. We then discuss a trial court's role in ruling on a Batson objection and the deference that a reviewing court owes to that ruling. Next, we address this trial court's failure to make express credibility findings as to the prosecution's non-demeanor-based reasons, the same failure as to the prosecution's demeanor-based reasons, and the adequacy of the court of appeals' comparative juror analysis. Ultimately, we conclude that the trial court here did not err in overruling Beauvais's Batson objection and that remand is therefore unnecessary.

         A. The Three-Step Batson Framework

         ¶20 The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "forbids striking even a single prospective juror for a discriminatory purpose." Foster v. Chatman, 136 S.Ct. 1737, 1747 (2016) (quoting Snyder, 552 U.S. at 478). Accordingly, Batson and its progeny forbid parties in civil and criminal cases from exercising peremptory challenges to excuse potential jurors on the basis of race or gender. Batson, 476 U.S. at 89 (race); J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T.B., 511 U.S. 127, 129 (1994) (gender).

         ¶21 In Batson, the U.S. Supreme Court laid out a three-step analysis for trial courts to use in determining whether the striking party excused a potential juror on a discriminatory basis. Foster, 136 S.Ct. at 1747. First, the objecting party must make a prima facie showing that the striking party exercised a peremptory challenge on the basis of race or gender. Id. Second, if the objecting party makes out a prima facie case, then the striking party must offer a non-discriminatory reason for striking each potential juror in question. Id. Finally, "in light of the parties' submissions, the trial court must determine whether the [objecting party] has shown purposeful discrimination" by a preponderance of the evidence. Id. (quoting Snyder, 552 U.S. at 476-77); accord Madison v. Comm'r, Ala. Dep't of Corr., 761 F.3d 1240, 1250 (11th Cir. 2014), cert. denied sub nom Madison v. Thomas, 135 S.Ct. 1562 (2015) (specifying the preponderance of the evidence standard) (citing Johnson v. California, 545 U.S. 162, 170 (2005)). The trial court's finding at step three as to whether the objecting party has shown purposeful discrimination is a "determination[] of credibility and demeanor" that lies "peculiarly within a trial judge's province." Snyder, 552 U.S. at 477 (quoting Hernandez, 500 U.S. at 365). Only the third step of the analysis is at issue here.

         B. Standard of Review

         ¶22 "[A] trial court's step-three determination as to the existence of [purposeful] discrimination is an issue of fact to which an appellate court should defer . . . ." People v. Rodriguez, 2015 CO 55, ¶ 13, 351 P.3d 423, 429. We set aside a trial court's factual findings only when they are so clearly erroneous as to find no support in the record. Downey v. People, 25 P.3d 1200, 1206 (Colo. 2001). A clear error review of a Batson ruling must examine all circumstances bearing upon whether intentional discrimination motivated the challenges. Foster, 136 S.Ct. at 1748. Given this deferential standard, reversal is only proper under "exceptional circumstances." Snyder, 552 U.S. at 477 (quoting Hernandez, 500 U.S. at 366).

         C. Step Three of Batson

         ¶23 The trial court's task at step three of a Batson analysis is to determine whether the objecting party proved that the striking party exercised peremptory challenges with a discriminatory animus. Rodriguez, ¶ 12, 351 P.3d at 429. One important tool that courts use to make this determination is an assessment of the striking party's credibility and the plausibility of its non-discriminatory explanations. Id. This credibility evaluation is challenging because the exercise of peremptory challenges is often a matter of instinct, and even articulating the reason for a challenge can be difficult. Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231, 252 (2005); see also JEB, 511 U.S. at 148 (O'Connor, J, concurring) ("Indeed, often a reason for [striking a juror] cannot be stated, for a trial lawyer's judgments about a juror's sympathies are sometimes based on experienced hunches and educated guesses . . . ."). Thus, a trial court must consider "all of the circumstances that bear upon the issue of" purposeful discrimination. Snyder, 552 U.S. at 478; accord People v. Cerrone, 854 P.2d 178, 191 (Colo. 1993). These circumstances include, among others, the striking party's demeanor, the plausibility of the explanations, and "whether the proffered rationale has some basis in accepted trial strategy." Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 339 (2003). Indeed, "the best evidence [of discriminatory intent] often will be the demeanor of the attorney who exercises the challenge." Snyder, 552 U.S. at 477 (alterations in original) (quoting Hernandez, 500 U.S. at 365).

         ¶24 "Though the trial court must evaluate all relevant facts, 'the ultimate burden of persuasion regarding [discriminatory] motivation rests with, and never shifts from, the [objecting party].'" People v. Wilson, 2015 CO 54M, ¶ 14, 351 P.3d 1126, 1132 (quoting Purkett v. Elem, 514 U.S. 765, 768 (1995) (per curiam)). Hence, a trial court should sustain a Batson objection only if the objecting party proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the striking party's non-discriminatory reasons are sufficiently incredible that the "'discriminatory hypothesis' better fits the evidence." Id.; accord Elem, 514 U.S. at 768 ("[I]mplausible or fantastic justifications may (and probably will) be found to be pretexts for purposeful discrimination.").

         ¶25 As we explained above, this determination "lies peculiarly within a trial judge's province." Cockrell, 537 U.S. at 339 (quoting Hernandez, 500 U.S. at 365); accord Wilson, ¶¶ 13-14, 351 P.3d at 1131-32. The trial court is in the best position to evaluate the striking party's demeanor and the credibility of its justifications because the "trial judge is the judicial officer who watches and listens as voir dire unfolds, and who can discern the presence or absence of discriminatory intent." Wilson, ¶ 23, 351 P.3d at 1134 (quoting Valdez, 966 P.2d at 599 (Kourlis, J., dissenting)); accord Rodriguez, ¶ 18, 351 P.3d at 430-31. The trial judge is also in the best position to evaluate a potential juror's demeanor-and that of the striking party-when parties predicate peremptory strikes on the potential juror's demeanor. See Snyder, 552 U.S. at 479. It is for these reasons that appellate courts afford trial courts great deference and will only reverse under "exceptional circumstances." Id. at 477 (quoting Hernandez, 500 U.S. at 366).

         III. Analysis and Application

         ¶26 The People contend that the court of appeals erred in three ways: (1) by remanding for specific credibility findings on some of the prosecution's non-demeanor-based reasons for its peremptory challenges, (2) by refusing to credit the prosecution's demeanor-based reasons because the trial court did not expressly find them credible, and (3) by conducting a flawed comparative juror analysis. We address each of these contentions in turn.

         A. Express Credibility Findings on Non-Demeanor-Based Reasons

         ¶27 The People assert that the court of appeals erred when it remanded the case and ordered the trial court to make express credibility findings as to the prosecution's claim that it excused several female potential jurors in part because they were young, childless, in college, or apparently sick. The People assert that express credibility findings as to each of the striking party's non-demeanor reasons are not necessary to satisfy step three of Batson. Rather, according to the People, a trial court's ultimate decision to overrule a Batson objection can, under certain circumstances, be taken as an implicit crediting of the prosecution's reasons and thus survive clear error review. We agree.

         ¶28 In framing this issue, we emphasize that the purpose of the Batson analysis is to determine whether the party making the Batson objection has proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the striking party excused jurors with discriminatory intent. Assessing the striking party's credibility is an important component of that determination, but it is not the ultimate inquiry. Rather, the trial court's obligation at step three is to ...

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