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Tommy West v. State of Florida, Case No. 4D13-2025 (4th DCA)

In West, the Fourth District found that the trial court failed to conduct a genuineness analysis of the State’s peremptory challenge of a Hispanic juror. During jury selection, the defense requested a race neutral basis for the State’s peremptory challenge of a Hispanic juror. The State said the juror was unemployed. The trial court said that was a race neutral basis, but clarified that she was employed as a house keeper. The State said it did not want a house keeper on the panel. The trial court permitted the peremptory challenge without further analysis, over the defense’s objection.

On appeal, the defense argued that the State’s reason was pretextual and the trial court erred when it did not determine the genuineness of the State’s proposed race neutral reason for striking the juror. Peremptory challenges are presumed to be exercised in a nondiscriminatory manner and rulings on peremptory challenges turns primarily on an assessment of credibility. In Melbourne v. State, the Florida Supreme Court created a three step procedure that must be followed when a party objects to the exercise of a peremptory challenge on the basis that it was made on a discriminatory basis. First, the objecting party must make a timely objection and show that the venireperson is a member of a distinct protected group, and request that the trial court ask the striking party to give a reason for the strike. Second, if these initial requirements are met, the court must ask the striking party to explain the reason for the strike, and the burden shifts to the striking party to demonstrate a race, ethnicity or gender-neutral explanation. Third, if the explanation is facially race, ethnicity or gender neutral, the court must determine whether the explanation is a pretext given all of the circumstances surrounding the strike, with the focus of the inquiry being the genuineness of the explanation. The three steps are not discretionary, and a trial court’s failure to comply with each step requires remand for a new trial.

The Fifth District explained that where the record is devoid of any indication that the trial court considered circumstances relevant to whether a strike was exercised for a discriminatory purpose, the reviewing court, confined to the record before it, cannot assume that a genuineness inquiry was actually conducted. In the present case, the State initially said the race-neutral basis for the strike was that the juror was unemployed, and later said it was because she was a housekeeper. Based on the record, the trial court summarily accepted the peremptory challenge. Because the record contained no indication that the trial court conducted a genuineness inquiry, the Fifth District reversed.

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