Kentucky appeals court orders new trial after Black jurors tossed without explanation

Published 3:22 pm Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Kentucky Court of Appeals on Friday ordered a new trial for a Black defendant after finding that a lower court judge failed to protect his civil rights during jury selection, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

In a 2018 assault case against Darryl Keith Baker, former Judge John Reynolds should not have let the prosecutor strike two Black men from the jury pool without exploring her reasons for the strikes, the court said.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky, removing a potential juror based on race violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. If defense lawyers challenge a prosecutor for possibly violating this rule — and Baker’s did — the trial judge is supposed to make the prosecutor explain in court why the decision to strike a juror was not influenced by the juror’s race.

The prosecutor said she objected to one of the men because he “gave off bad body language” and looked “disgruntled,” while the other had a father who was prosecuted decades earlier for murder, the Court of Appeals wrote in its decision. Reynolds failed to press the prosecutor any further.

“This is gravely insufficient,” the Appeals Court ruling stated. “Unfortunately, the trial court in the case … utterly failed to conduct any kind of independent assessment of the prosecutor’s reasoning.”

In its Friday ruling, the Appeals Court noted the Kentucky Supreme Court in 2018 specifically warned trial courts that prosecutors cannot strike jurors based only on their perceived “belligerent” or “hostile” looks. The court also wrote that a white woman whose father also had a criminal record was found to be acceptable to sit on the jury.

Baker was convicted of third-degree assault for punching a Lexington police officer and for being a persistent felony offender. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The 12-person jury that convicted him ended up with one Black member, a woman.

The Court of Appeals on Friday reversed Baker’s conviction and returned the case to Fayette Circuit Court for a new trial.

Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn defended the prosecutor on Friday, saying she struck the jurors “for race-neutral reasons.”

In a dissenting opinion, Court of Appeals Judge J. Christopher McNeill said the reasons the prosecutor offered for her jury strikes were adequate and the burden was on Baker’s defense lawyer to show that race motivated her actions.