City of Seattle v. Erickson

Defendant Kirk Ricardo Saintcalle had been convicted of first-degree murder after prosecutors excused the only African American juror. State v. Saintcalle, 178 Wash. 2d 34, 35 (2013). The juror was dismissed because she had lost a friend to murder just two weeks prior and the prosecution assumed this might have an effect on her ability to serve as a juror. Id. at 38. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Washington found the reason for dismissal to be racially neutral, and therefore, did not interfere. Id. at 35. Although the court ultimately found that the lone African American juror had been rightfully dismissed, it did not shy away from addressing the effects of implicit and explicit bias in jury section.

The Washington Supreme Court gave significant attention to the “changing face” of racial discrimination. Id. at 46. It pointed out the suppressed, subconscious nature of racism in more recent times. Id. at 45. Overt racism had become unpopular; therefore, more covert forms of racism prevailed. Id. The Batson analysis that governed at the time required parties to make out a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination by showing that the totality of the relevant facts gave rise to an inference of discriminatory purpose. Id. Under this standard, appellate courts had never reversed a conviction on the basis of discrimination in the jury selection process. Id. However, the Court knew that preemptory challenges had become a cloak for racial discrimination. Id. The Court stated, “To put it simply, good people often discriminate, and they often discriminate without being aware of it.” Id. at 48.  Batson could only root out purposeful discrimination, but could not address unconscious bias. Id.  Ultimately, the Court lamented its inadequate application of the Batson standard, but did not alter the standard because, at the time, neither party raised, briefed, or argued the issued. Id. at 35.

In City of Seattle v. Erickson, the Washington Supreme Court overruled Saintcalle. City of Seattle v. Erickson, 188 Wash. 2d 721, 722 (2017). In Erickson, Defendant Matthew Erickson, a black man, had appealed a conviction and the prosecution had exercised a preemptory challenge against the only black juror. Id. at 723. In an effort to prevent racial discrimination in jury selection, the Court determined that courts must recognize a prima facie case of discriminatory purpose where the sole member of a racially cognizable group has been struck from a jury. Id. at 734. The Court acknowledged that the Batson test as it had been previously applied was crippling in that it made it nearly impossible to prove discrimination where it almost certainly existed. Id. at 736. The Washington Supreme Court remanded Erickson’s case for a new trial, and sent the compelling message that it was devoted to eliminating racial prejudice in the jury system.