Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California John A. Mendez, District Judge, Presiding D.C. Nos. 2:04-cv-02208-JAM-JFM, 2:03-cv-02063-JAM-JFM
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reinhardt, Circuit Judge:
Argued and Submitted October 14, 2011-San Francisco, California
Before: Betty B. Fletcher, Stephen Reinhardt, and A. Wallace Tashima, Circuit Judges.
Opinion by Judge Reinhardt
Alonzo Deon Johnson and Darrell Thompson, California state prisoners, challenge the prosecution's use of peremptory strikes to exclude black jurors in their trial. A magistrate judge, after holding an evidentiary hearing at which the prosecutor testified, found that he had purposefully discriminated on the basis of race in exercising a peremptory strike against one of the black jurors. The district judge, without holding a new evidentiary hearing, rejected the magistrate judge's finding as to the prosecutor's lack of credibility in asserting race-neutral reasons for having stricken the juror. In doing so, the district judge denied Johnson and Thompson the process that they were constitutionally due.
We hold that the rule of United States v. Ridgway, 300 F.3d 1153 (9th Cir. 2002), extends to determinations by a magistrate judge as to the credibility of a prosecutor's testimony at the second and third steps of the inquiry required by Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). In Ridgway, we held that the Due Process Clause required "that a district court . . . conduct its own evidentiary hearing before rejecting a magistrate judge's credibility findings made after a hearing on a motion to suppress." 300 F.3d at 1154. As in Ridgway, an in-person evaluation of a witness's demeanor-here, that of the prosecutor-is essential to the kind of determination that the district judge was required to make: "In the typical peremptory challenge inquiry, the decisive question will be whether counsel's race-neutral explanation for a peremptory challenge should be believed. There will seldom be much evidence bearing on that issue, and the best evidence often will be the demeanor of the attorney who exercises the challenge." Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352, 365 (1991). The district judge erred by declining the opportunity to observe the trial prosecutor's demeanor before rejecting the magistrate judge's adverse credibility finding.
We therefore vacate the district court's denial of the writ of habeas corpus and remand for the district judge either to accept the magistrate judge's credibility finding or to conduct a new evidentiary hearing. We retain jurisdiction over any appeal from the district court's judgment.
In 2000, Johnson and Thompson were tried together for murder and other charges in the death of Rafael Palacios. They were acquitted of murder but convicted of shooting at an occupied motor vehicle and, in Thompson's case, of willfully participating in a street gang and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Several sentence enhancements were found to apply in each case.
During the jury selection phase of their trial, Johnson and Thompson raised objections under Batson and its state-law cognate, People v. Wheeler, 22 Cal. 3d 258 (1978), to the prosecution's use of peremptory challenges against three black jurors: W.J., E.G., and W.T. The trial court found in each case that Johnson and Thompson "had failed to make a prima facie showing that the prosecutor had an invidious basis for the peremptory challenge."
After exhausting his remedies in state court, including an appeal before the intermediate state appellate court and a petition for review that the state supreme court declined to hear, Johnson filed a timely petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. Thompson did the same in the Northern District of California. Thompson's case was transferred to the Eastern District, the state filed answers to both petitions, and the district court deemed the cases related.
Magistrate Judge John F. Moulds issued an order concluding that the California Court of Appeal had applied an incorrect legal standard in determining whether Johnson and Thompson had established a prima facie case of racial discrimination. The magistrate judge therefore determined that he would evaluate Johnson and Thompson's Batson claim de novo, without affording deference under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The magistrate judge found that Johnson and Thompson had made a prima facie showing of racial discrimination as to each of the three black jurors whose strikes were at issue. Recognizing that under Batson, "the burden shifts to the state to explain the racial exclusion by offering permissible race-neutral justifications for his strikes," the ...