When the Supreme Court wrote its Batson v. Kentucky decision the justices virtually assured defense counsel they could contend the prosecution exercised peremptory challenges on a racial or ethnic basis in every case involving a black or Hispanic defendant. In Davis v. Ayala the courts have spent years arguing about a prosecutor who requested an in camera hearing in the court to explain his reason for excusing only black and Hispanic jurors. He had asked the judge to explain prosecution trial strategy and his request was granted. Obviously, defense counsel objected. Jury selection lasted three months.
In this death penalty case the jury rendered a verdict of guilty and voted the death penalty. Appeal is automatic in the California Supreme Court, and the conviction affirmed on grounds the defendant was not prejudiced by the in camera hearing. But the justices disapproved and recommended that trial judges not engage in this practice. Defendant petitioned for habeas corpus in district court; denied, and the defendant appealed. The 9th Circuit disagreed and reversed, with seven judges dissenting. Certiorari was granted, the Supreme Court pulled out all the stops and reversed the 9th Circuit.
First, they informed the 9th Circuit “that their role is not to conduct de novo review of factual findings and substitute the federal court ‘s own opinion of the determination made on the scene by the trial judge. In the Supreme Court the test is whether the error was ‘harmless.’ “For reasons of finality, comity and federalism, habeas petitioners are not entitled habeas relief … unless trial error resulted in actual prejudice. “‘Harmless’ does not mean, as the 9th Circuit thought, that a state court’s harmless determination has no significance.
“A trial court finding regarding the credibility of an attorney’s explanation, and the grounds for exercising the peremptory challenged, is entitled to great deference. Their judgment calls may involve a comparison of responses that differ in only nuanced respects, as well as a sensitive assessment of jurors’ demeanor. We have previously recognized that peremptory challenges “are often the subjects of instinct,” Miller–El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231, 252, 125 S.Ct. 2317, 162 L.Ed.2d 196 (2005) (citing Batson, 476 U.S., at 106, 106 S.Ct. 1712 (Marshall, J., concurring)), and that “race-neutral reasons for peremptory challenges often invoke a juror’s demeanor,” Snyder, 552 U.S., at 477, 128 S.Ct. 1203. A trial court is best situated to evaluate both the words and the demeanor of jurors who are peremptorily challenged, as well as the credibility of the prosecutor who exercised those strikes. As we have said, ‘these determinations of credibility and demeanor lie peculiarly within a trial judge’s province, and in the absence of exceptional circumstances, we [will] defer to the trial court. Appellate judges cannot on the basis of a cold record easily second-guess a trial judge’s decision about likely motivation.” Collins, 546 U.S., at 343, 126 S.Ct. 969 The upshot is that even if “[r]easonable minds reviewing the record might disagree about the prosecutor’s credibility, … on habeas review that does not suffice to supersede the trial court’s credibility determination.” Id., at 341–342, 126 S.Ct. 969 (majority opinion).”
Here are some extracts from the Supreme Court opinion: “In ordering federal habeas relief based on their assessment of the responsiveness and completeness of [a juror’s] answers, the members of the [9th Circuit] panel majority misunderstood the role of a federal court in a habeas case. The role of a federal habeas court is to “ ‘guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems,’ ” Richter, 562 U.S., at 102–103, 131 S.Ct. 770 (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332, n. 5, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979) ,not to apply de novo review of factual findings and to substitute its own opinions for the determination made on the scene by the trial judge.”