Beatings & Batson

guard beating prisoner

The Supreme Court is back in session, well rested from a three-week vacation. (We don’t remember the last time we took three weeks off. Wonder what that must be like.) They opened the day this morning with two interesting per curiam decisions.

The first, Wilkins v. Gaddy, is about what counts as “excessive force” against a prisoner. There was some confusion among the circuits here.

This was a case coming out of North Carolina. A prisoner named Wilkins asked a prison guard for a grievance form. The guard, Gaddy, lost his temper. Wilkins claims that Gaddy threw him to the ground and beat him up, until another officer came and pulled him off. At the end of the day, though, his only injury was a bruised heel and some lingering pain.

The Fourth Circuit said that didn’t count as “excessive force,” because there wasn’t much injury. The main case on point was Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), which the Fourth Circuit had been interpreting to mean that the prisoner’s injuries had to be more than de minimis. And a bruise on your heel is about as de minimis as it gets.

The Supreme Court reversed, saying that’s not at all what Hudson was saying. Calling the Fourth’s reading of that case “strained,” the Supremes clarified the rule in no uncertain terms: the focus is not on what happened to the prisoner, but on what the corrections officer did.

The issue is not how significant the injuries were, but whether the correction officer’s force was “nontrivial,” and “was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm,” rather than as part of “a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline.”

So, just because a prisoner got hurt, that doesn’t mean he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. People can get hurt for other reasons; that makes sense. What matters is whether he was assaulted, subjected to unjustifiable ill treatment. The extent of injury doesn’t have anything to do with whether his rights were violated in the first place — they merely go to “the damages he may recover.”


The second case decided today, Thaler v. Haynes, is a Batson case out of Texas.

This was a death penalty case, so the stakes were high. There’d be some pressure on everyone involved to do it right. But the criminal law being what it is, things went weird from the get-go.

When the attorneys questioned potential jurors during voir dire, they were in front of Judge Harper. But when they sat down to exercise their peremptories, they were in front of a different judge, Judge Wallace, who hadn’t been there for the questioning. An unnecessary wrinkle that only caused problems, as it turned out.

Because the prosecutor struck a Black woman named Owens, and the defense cried Batson.

(Batson, for those of you playing along at home, is a case that says race cannot be a valid basis for a peremptory challenge, which ordinarily can be for any reason. It’s a strange decision, because it’s not written to protect the rights of the individual defendant. It doesn’t matter if the people being excluded are of the same race as the defendant. The prosecutor can raise a Batson challenge to defense peremptories as well. The reasoning is that it’s not the defendant’s right’s being violated, but the rights of potential jurors. Seriously. We told you it’s a strange one. But we use it as if it somehow were protecting the defendant’s rights, perhaps to a representative venire or some such.)

After crying foul, the defense had to make out a prima facie case that the prosecutor was excluding Black people. They seem to have done so, and so then the burden shifted to the prosecutor to give an explanation for striking Owens that had nothing to do with race.

The prosecutor said Owens’ demeanor and body language indicated that she wasn’t taking the proceedings seriously, and that she wouldn’t be neutral when considering the death penalty.

The defense argued that there was no way Judge Wallace could assess that explanation, because he wasn’t there to see the jurors’ demeanors himself during questioning.

Judge Wallace ruled that there was no Batson violation, the case went to trial, Mr. Haynes was convicted, and he was sentenced to death.

Haynes appealed on the Batson issue, lost, and the Supremed denied cert. He lost a state habeas petition, and then went for federal habeas. The District Court said no, but then the Fifth Circuit found otherwise:

An appellate court applying Batson arguably should find clear error when the record reflects that the trial court was not able to verify the aspect of the juror’s demeanor upon which the prosecutor based his or her peremptory challenge.

So the Fifth Circuit said no court could ever adjudicate this issue here, because all anyone has is the paper record of Owens’ questioning, and there’s no record of her demeanor. So they ordered a new trial, a complete do-over.

This morning, the Supreme Court reversed. The two cases cited by the Fifth Circuit, Batson and Snyder v. Kentucky, nowhere say that a judge can’t accept a demeanor-based explanation unless that same judge was also a witness to the demeanor. Batson said the judge has to consider all possible explanatory factors. Snyder dealt with a peremptory challenge where the prosecutor gave two explanations, one of which was demeanor; the judge didn’t explain why he overruled the objection; the Supreme Court then held that the demeanor explanation could have been enough, but there’s no way to know whether the judge relied on it or on the other one, which wasn’t good enough.

In Snyder, the Court even specifically said that, although the trial judge’s observations are of great importance when the explanation is based on demeanor, they’re not necessary — as when the judge doesn’t remember that particular juror’s demeanor.

So today, the Supremes clarified once and for all that there is no requirement that the trial judge had to have observed the juror’s demeanor, when that’s the explanation given after a Batson challenge.

This is going to give prosecutors a little more wiggle room to just make up some bullshit story when they have a Batson challenge, but only in cases where the judge got replaced halfway through (impossibly rare), or where they’re confident that the judge wasn’t paying attention (sadly not rare at all). We’d like to say that no prosecutor would ever do something like that, but we’ve seen even worse, so this isn’t exactly heartening.

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