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Hernandez v. New York

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Dionisio Hernandez (Defendant) was convicted of attempted murder and weapons possession after the prosecutor struck several Latino jurors during voir dire.

    Facts.

    Defendant was on trial for attempted murder and weapons possession. During voir dire, the prosecutor used peremptory challenges to strike several Latino jurors. When asked to provide an explanation, the prosecutor stated that he read their conduct or answers to indicate an unwillingness to accept an interpreter’s translation of witness testimony. The trial judge ruled in favor of the State. Defendant was convicted and appealed.

    Issue.

    When the State challenges in voir dire create a disproportionate exclusion of a certain race from the jury, does a race-neutral explanation overcome the presumption of discriminatory intent?

    Held.

    (Kennedy, J.) Yes. A race-neutral explanation for challenges in voir dire that create a disproportionate exclusion of a certain race from a jury overcomes the presumption of discriminatory intent. Here, the prosecutor provided a race-neutral explanation for the peremptory strikes that resulted in a disproportionate impact on Latino and bilingual jurors. He did not want jurors who he felt would not accept an interpreter’s translation of Spanish-language testimony. Had the prosecutor justified his challenges by saying that he did not want Spanish-speaking jurors, the result would be different.

    Dissent.

    (Stevens, J.) Disparate impact is evidence of discriminatory intent. A proffered race-neutral reason is rarely sufficient to rebut this prima facie case when there is disparate impact. Discriminatory purpose can be found even when the prosecutor honestly believes that his motive is benign. A subjective discriminatory purpose is not required in order to find the peremptory challenges unconstitutional. The prosecutor’s explanation does not overcome the presumption of discrimination here because 1) it results in a disproportionate impact on Spanish-speaking jurors, 2) he could have taken less drastic means to allay his concerns, and 3) if he had a valid concern it would have been sufficient to support a challenge for cause.

    Concurrence.

    (O’Connor, J.) The plurality’s analysis goes further than necessary to resolve the issue in this case. If the prosecutor struck the jurors for their inability to rely on a translation, then the strikes were not made on the basis of race. Even if the effect was the same as if it had been made on the basis of race, the Equal Protection Clause is not implicated unless the strike is made on the basis of race. Even though disproportionate effect may be evidence of discriminatory intent, and a judge may determine that a proffered race-neutral explanation is merely a pretext for a race-based challenge, here the trial judge believed the prosecutor’s explanation. The trial court’s finding is not clearly erroneous, and, therefore, stands.

    Discussion.

    The Supreme Court, in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), held that peremptory challenges cannot be used to remove jurors because of their race. The decision in Hernandez does not expand Batson by finding that excusal of Latino jurors for being bilingual was not the same as excusal for being Latino. The result of Hernandez is that prosecutors may dismiss jurors who speak Spanish and English when Spanish-language testimony is anticipated. The controversy over this ruling is evident in the split court.


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