Chin v Runnels

Chin v Runnels343 F Supp. 2d 891 (N.D. Cal 2004)

A San Francisco state court convicted Defendant-Petitioner Mark Shew Fei Chin of second-degree murder in 1996. On appeal, Chin alleged that California’s jury foreperson selection process excluded Americans of Chinese, Filipino, and Latinx descent from service as foreperson on the grand jury that indicted him, thereby violating his equal protection rights. Constrained by a stringent standard of review, the district court reluctantly denied Chin’s petition for habeas corpus. Nevertheless, its opinion criticized the state court’s finding that “permissible racially neutral selection criteria and procedures” yielded no Chinese, Filipino, or Hispanic American jury forepersons over a thirty-six year period.

The court first examined Chin’s uncontested statistical evidence. Based on the demographics of the jury pool, the probability of a random selection process producing no forepersons from the groups in question was 0.0003%. The court commented, “Even if the methodology of the statistical analysis were subject to challenge, the stark reality of the actual number chosen—zero—is plain.” Chin, 343 F. Supp. 2d at 905. Finding a closer examination warranted, the court then questioned the role of “unconscious stereotyping or biases… notwithstanding the best intentions of those involved” because of the extensive subjectivity in California’s foreperson selection process. Id. at 906. Citing precedent and social science literature, the opinion recognized that subjectivity allows implicit biases and stereotypes to unconsciously guide decision-making processes.

The court further noted that many of the facially race-neutral criteria used throughout the selection process “echo the negative stereotypes that have long plagued Asian-Americans and others.” Id. at 907. Specifically, the court pointed to testimony indicating that judges looked for forepersons with “people skills” and who weren’t “withdrawn.” Id. Because of pervasive stereotypes of Asian Americans as quiet, unassuming, and lacking leadership abilities, the court concluded there is a “sizeable risk” that “unconscious bias” influenced the foreperson selection process of the grand jury that indicted Chin. Id. at 908. Regardless, the court felt the applicable standard of review forced it to deny Chin’s petition and uphold his conviction.