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Chamberlin v. Fisher

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 27, 2017

LISA JO CHAMBERLIN, Petitioner - Appellee
v.
MARSHALL L. FISHER, COMMISSIONER, MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Respondent - Appellant

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi

          Before DAVIS, CLEMENT, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.

          GREGG COSTA, Circuit Judge

         A Mississippi jury convicted Lisa Jo Chamberlin of two counts of capital murder and sentenced her to death. The district court granted Chamberlin's petition for writ of habeas corpus on the ground that the state court erred in finding that there was no racial exclusion of jurors at her trial. We affirm.

         I.

         Even by the standards of capital cases, the double murder in this case was gruesome. It occurred in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where Chamberlin and her then boyfriend, Roger Gillett, had recently moved in with Gillett's cousin, Vernon Hulett, and Hulett's girlfriend, Linda Heintzelman. After an argument, Hulett and Heintzelman told Chamberlin and Gillett to move out. Unwilling to leave, Gillett began beating Hulett and Heintzelman and demanded that Hulett tell him the combination to a safe in Hulett's bedroom. Although Hulett eventually disclosed a combination, no one was able to open the safe. In an escalating rage, Gillett continued to physically assault Hulett, and he and Chamberlin physically and sexually assaulted Heintzelman.

         Eventually, Chamberlin told Gillett they should murder Hulett and Heintzelman and flee. Gillett struck Hulett in the head with a hammer and slashed his throat. Chamberlin attempted to strangle Heintzelman but was not strong enough to suffocate her, so Gillett stabbed Heintzelman. Chamberlin and Gillett left the home to dispose of the knife and hammer. When they returned, Heintzelman was lying on the floor, still breathing. After leaving her there for most of the day, the couple finally decided to suffocate her. They bound her hands with duct tape and put plastic bags over her head until she stopped breathing.

         The couple put both bodies in Hulett's freezer, and, taking with them the freezer and all the evidence they could collect, they left Mississippi. They ended up in Kansas, where Gillett had family. Almost immediately, Kansas authorities took them into custody on drug charges and obtained a search warrant for a farm where authorities suspected the couple was manufacturing crystal meth. During the search, sheriff's deputies found the bodies in the freezer.

         Back in Mississippi, Gillett and Chamberlin were tried separately. Both trials resulted in death sentences, though Gillett's sentence was vacated on state postconviction review.

         II.

         Even for the most horrific of crimes with the most culpable of defendants, there are certain trial errors that are deemed structural and require automatic reversal. Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275, 281 (1993). The ground on which the district court granted Chamberlin relief, exclusion of jurors on racial grounds, is one example. "Discrimination in jury selection . . . causes harms to the litigants, the community, and the individual jurors who are wrongfully excluded from participation in the judicial process." J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T.B., 511 U.S. 127, 140 (1994). Going all the way back to one of its first cases finding a violation of the Equal Protection Clause (Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303, 312 (1880)), the Supreme Court thus "has followed an automatic reversal rule once a violation of equal protection in the selection of jurors has been proven." Winston v. Boatwright, 649 F.3d 618, 627 (7th Cir. 2011); see also Scott v. Hubert, 610 F.App'x. 433, 434 (5th Cir. 2015) ("[D]iscrimination on the basis of race in the selection of . . . jurors is a form of structural error that voids a conviction.").[1] And because such error "casts doubt on the integrity of the judicial process and places the fairness of a criminal proceeding in doubt, " a defendant may challenge the exclusion of jurors of a different race. Powers v. Ohio, 499 U.S. 400, 406-11 (1991) (internal citations omitted).

         Chamberlin, a white defendant, invokes that rule to challenge the exclusion of black jurors. After the trial judge narrowed an initial pool of several hundred prospective jurors to 42 qualified jurors, 31% of whom were black, both sides exercised peremptory strikes. The prosecutor first went through the list of qualified prospective jurors in order, striking and accepting jurors as he went, until the State proffered a prospective jury of twelve. The defense then had an opportunity to strike or accept the proffered jurors.

         The prosecutor struck two of the first three black jurors and accepted eleven of the first twelve white jurors, proffering an initial proposed jury of eleven white jurors and one black juror. After defense counsel struck several of those jurors, the State continued in the same manner, striking the next five black jurors (including Thomas Sturgis and David Minor who will become important), before accepting two black jurors. Even this low number is more than the State planned to accept. The prosecutor believed the second black juror had been struck for cause prior to the peremptory phase.

         Ultimately, the prosecutor used eight of his thirteen strikes, [2] or 62%, against black jurors. Ten white jurors and two black jurors sat on the jury; both alternates were white.

         Chamberlin objected to the strikes, arguing they constituted a prima facie case of discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), which established a framework for determining if peremptory strikes are racially motivated. Applying Batson, the court asked the prosecutor if he had race-neutral reasons for the strikes. For the jurors relevant to this appeal, Sturgis and Minor, the prosecutor pointed to their answers to three questions on written questionnaires the jurors had completed before trial. The prosecutor claimed he struck them because of the answers they checked in response to questions 30, 34, and 35, in which both stated: (1) they were "not sure" if they were emotionally capable of announcing a verdict of death; (2) they were "not sure, " because it was a capital case, if they would hold the State to a higher burden of proof than the law requires; and (3) "yes, " because the defendant faced the death penalty, they would want to be one hundred percent certain before finding the defendant guilty.[3]

         The trial court accepted these race-neutral reasons. Defense counsel responded by noting that Sturgis generally favored the death penalty and that Minor had no opinion on the death penalty, and, like other jurors the prosecutor had accepted, Minor had a relative in law enforcement. Based on "the totality of their questionnaire[s], " defense counsel argued, "it appears that they could be absolutely open- and fair-minded jurors on the question of the death penalty." Defense counsel also pointed out that the State had not sought to question Sturgis or Minor individually to follow up on their questionnaires. Without commenting on the defense's arguments, the trial court rejected the Batson claim.

         The court did not conduct a "comparative juror analysis": an analysis of whether reasons given by the prosecutor for striking black jurors apply equally to white jurors the prosecutor accepted. See Reed v. Quarterman, 555 F.3d 364, 369 (5th Cir. 2009). Chamberlin did not point out, and the court did not consider, that a white juror the prosecutor had accepted, Brannon Cooper, gave the same answers as Sturgis and Minor to questions 30, 34, and 35. Like Sturgis and Minor, Cooper was "not sure" if he was "emotionally capable of standing up in court and announcing [a] verdict as to the defendant being put to death." Like them, he was "not sure" if he would "hold the state to a greater burden of proof than the law requires because this case is one in which the death penalty may be imposed." And, "because this case involves the death penalty, " he would "want to be 100% certain" of guilt before returning a guilty verdict. Despite the three men giving the same answers, the prosecutor accepted Cooper yet struck Sturgis and Minor.[4]

         On direct appeal, Chamberlin claimed she was entitled to relief on six grounds, including Batson. Chamberlin v. State, 989 So.2d 320 (Miss. 2008). Chamberlin again did not compare Sturgis and Minor to Cooper. Without conducting a comparative juror analysis, the Supreme Court of Mississippi denied relief, finding with regards to Sturgis and Minor that "the defense did not meet its burden to show that the facts and circumstances give rise to the inference that the prosecutor exercised the peremptory challenges with a discriminatory purpose." Id. at 339.[5]

         In her federal petition, Chamberlin asserted she was entitled to relief on thirteen grounds, including that the state court clearly erred when it found there was no Batson violation. Chamberlin v. Fisher, 2015 WL 1485901, at *12 n.3 (S.D.Miss. Mar. 31, 2015). The district court agreed: a Batson violation had occurred which warranted vacating Chamberlin's conviction and sentence. Id. at *21-23. The State appeals.

         III.

         The district court granted the writ in a proceeding governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). It found that Chamberlin's Batson claim warranted federal relief under either of the two grounds on which a federal court can grant a writ based on a claim that was decided in state court. Those are when the state court adjudication:

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); see Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520 (2003).

         The district court held that the legal error subsection (d)(1) describes existed because the Supreme Court of Mississippi did not conduct the comparative juror analysis used in Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005) (Miller-El II). It also held that the factual error subsection (d)(2) describes existed because, after using comparative juror analysis, it concluded that the state court's finding of race-neutral strikes for Sturgis and Minor was unreasonable.

         We need not reach the section 2254(d)(1) question whether the state court contravened Miller-El II in failing to conduct a comparative juror analysis. Compare McDaniels v. Kirkland, 813 F.3d 770, 777 (9th Cir. 2015) (en banc) (not deciding whether Miller-El II requires state courts to conduct comparative juror analysis when reviewing Batson claims), with id. at 782 (Ikuta, J., concurring) (arguing that "Miller-El II could not and did not establish any such rule" requiring state courts to conduct such analysis, though recognizing that comparative juror analysis may be used in conducting the section 2254(d)(2) inquiry). That is because we affirm the judgment on the ground that the Mississippi court's decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts under section 2254(d)(2). See Miller-El II, 545 U.S. at 240, 266 (granting relief under section 2254(d)(2)). In conducting that factual review, both the Supreme Court and this court have used the comparative juror analysis even when state courts rejecting the Batson claim never did. See id. at 241, 241 n.2 (conducting comparative analysis on habeas review despite no such analysis being presented to state courts); Reed, 555 F.3d at 372-73 (same); Woodward v. Epps, 580 F.3d 318, 338 (5th Cir. 2009) (same).

         A court may grant relief for the factual error section 2254(d)(2) captures when it concludes that the state court's "decision was unreasonable or that the factual premise was incorrect." Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003) (Miller-El I). The state court's factual findings are presumed to be sound unless the petitioner rebuts the "presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). "The standard is demanding but not insatiable; . . . '[d]eference does not by definition preclude relief.'" Miller-El II, 545 U.S. at 240 (quoting Miller-El I, 537 U.S. at 340).

         We recognize some ambiguity in the district court's opinion about whether it applied the deference that section 2254(d)(2) requires. It first states that because of the legal error it found under section (d)(1), no AEDPA deference to factual findings was required. In the next breath, however, it recognizes that Chamberlin "must demonstrate that the state court's factual findings were unreasonable in light of the evidence presented" and cited Miller-El II's use of the demanding "clear and convincing" standard required to overcome state court findings.[6] We need not resolve this ambiguity because we can affirm on any ground supported by the record below. Dorsey v. Stephens, 720 F.3d 309, 314 (5th Cir. 2013). Applying AEDPA's deferential standard, we conclude that the state court's rejection of the Batson claim was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.

         The Supreme Court and this court have both granted writs based on findings that state courts had made unreasonable factual determinations in rejecting Batson claims. Miller-El II, 545 U.S. at 266; Reed, 555 F.3d at 382. In doing so, those cases relied heavily on comparative juror analysis. That analysis comes into play in the final stage of the Batson inquiry for determining whether a prosecutor used a peremptory strike in a racially discriminatory manner. Before that point, the defendant must have first made a prima facie showing that the prosecutor exercised peremptory challenges on the basis of race; in response, the prosecutor must have articulated a race-neutral reason for striking the juror in question. Batson, 476 U.S. at 96-98. That requires the court to then make the ultimate determination whether the defendant carried her burden of proving purposeful discrimination. Batson, 476 U.S. at 96-98; see Purkett v. Elem, 514 U.S. 765, 768 (1995).

         "When the process reaches this step, the defendant may rely on all relevant circumstances to raise an inference of purposeful discrimination." Fields v. Thaler, 588 F.3d 270, 274 (5th Cir. 2009) (quoting Miller-El II, 545 U.S. at 240) (internal quotation marks omitted). The pattern of strikes here, while not dispositive, is compelling evidence of intentional discrimination. See Miller-El I, 537 U.S. at 342; Hayes v. Thaler, 361 F.App'x 563, 570 (5th Cir. 2010). The State struck nearly two times as many black jurors as it accepted (eight strikes compared to five accepted, including one alternate), while accepting more than four times as many white jurors as it struck (five strikes compared to twenty-three accepted, including three alternates). It exercised 62% of its strikes on black jurors, despite black jurors making up only 31% of qualified prospective jurors.

         In other words, black jurors were more than three times more likely to be struck by the prosecutor than white jurors. "Happenstance is unlikely to produce this disparity." Miller-El II, 545 U.S. at 241 (quoting Miller-El I, at 342); Batson, 476 U.S. at 93 (noting that "seriously disproportionate exclusion" of black jurors "is itself such an ...


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