The Supreme Court on Thursday overturned Charles Conner’s murder and rape conviction saying the judge improperly allowed Clark County prosecutors to remove at least one African American from the list of prospective jurors because of his race.
“Even where, as here, there was sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction, that conviction cannon stand where the State engages in discriminatory jury selection,” states the opinion. “The harm from discriminatory jury selection extends beyond that inflicted on the defendant and the excluded juror to touch the entire community.”
During the Conner trial, the state used six of its nine peremptory challenges to strike minority jurors from the list. After prosecutors gave a general explanation for challenging all six saying they weren’t strong on whether they could impose the death penalty and changed their answers on the jury questionnaire, Conner’s public defenders argued the state should address each juror’s removal individually.
District Judge Elissa Cadish’s response was: “OK. Do you know what? I’m not paying extra fees for my kid to be at day care after six o’clock so now let’s go through it quickly.”
The state discussed each of the six jurors individually following which, without giving Conner’s lawyers an opportunity to respond or making specific findings for each juror, the judge denied the racial challenge and had the jury sworn in.
Saying the court “clearly erred,” the high court said in future cases, the district judge “must undertake a sensitive inquiry” into a claim any juror was stricken because of race and give the defendant’s lawyers the opportunity to argue.
“The district court should sustain (a racially based challenge) and deny the peremptory challenge if it is ‘more likely than not that the challenge was improperly motivated.’”
In the Conner trial, one of those jurors was an African American but a correctional officer and former police officer who said he could vote to impose the death penalty.
“A race-neutral explanation that is belied by the record is evidence of purposeful discrimination,” the opinion states.
Conner admitted the murder during trial but denied the rape charge saying the sex was consensual.
The opinion overturning the conviction was unanimous.