The Iowa Court of Appeals tossed a theft and eluding conviction against a Davenport man after they say prosecutors removed a black prospective juror in violation of a constitutional protection against removing jurors because of their race.
The appeals court remanded the case against Marquise Darnell Miller, 27, who is black, back to Scott County District Court, according to a decision released Wednesday.
Miller was charged in June 2015 with second-degree theft, eluding and accessory after the fact.
According to court records, an Iowa State Patrol trooper tried to pull over a silver Chrysler 200 that was going east on Interstate 80. The trooper learned from Johnson County law enforcement that the car had fled on I-80 after the occupants stole clothing from a store at the Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville.
Miller was the driver of the car. He was convicted in October 2015 and was later sentenced to up to five years in prison.
During a criminal jury trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys have a certain number of peremptory strikes, which allows them to dismiss a prospective juror without having to provide a reason, to get a panel of 12 jurors.
The Equal Protection Clause prohibits prosecutors from using peremptory strikes to remove prospective jurors from serving “solely on account of their race,” according to the appeals court decision.
During Miller’s trial, then-Assistant County Attorney Kelly Cunningham maintained that she used one of her strikes to dismiss one prospective juror, a black woman, because she indicated that she had a negative experience with law enforcement and said that her granddaughter was killed by an off-duty police officer who was speeding in a school zone.
The appeals court determined that this was a “race-neutral explanation” and that it believed Cunningham’s stated reason for the use of the challenge.
A second black woman, when asked by Cunningham if she knew any law enforcement officers, said that she knew one who was a friend of her husband and that it would not affect her impartiality.
When asked how she felt about law enforcement, she said, “They’re okay. There’s always room for improvement.”
Cunningham struck her from the jury pool, saying she was concerned with her statement about law enforcement and facial expressions during that line of questioning.
The trial judge rejected a challenge raised by Miller’s attorney, Lori Kieffer-Garrison, who argued that the woman was stricken because of race.
The appeals court wrote in its decision that it had “concerns about parties using ‘feelings about law enforcement’ as a proxy for race.”
The appeals court noted that two other nonblack prospective jurors responded with just as negative, if not more negative, responses to the questions about law enforcement. They were ultimately selected as jurors, according to the court.
“The side-by-side comparison of the response of the stricken black juror with that of the two nonblack jurors who were eventually empaneled, in addition to the question relied on by the State, undermines the State’s given reason for striking the juror,” the appeals court wrote in its decision.
Scott County Attorney Mike Walton said he was troubled by the court’s decision.
“That is certainly not our practice,” he said when reached Thursday. “Minorities very commonly serve on juries.”
Walton said it will be up to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which handled the appeal, to decide whether to seek further review of the decision.
He added that his office is prepared to retry the case, which he said is “very solid.”
Geoff Greenwood, communication director for the attorney general, said the office is reviewing the ruling and will consult with the county attorney in considering the options.
Kieffer-Garrison could not be reached for comment Thursday.