Tuesday, February 02, 2021

People v. Collins (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 2, 2021)

This one certainly tugs at the heartstrings in different directions.

First, there's the horrible crime.  You're not at all sympathetic to the defendant:

"Dontrell Collins drove his car at nearly 100 miles per hour and collided into a vehicle carrying three young women; two of them died. A test of his blood revealed the presence of alcohol and phencyclidine (PCP). . . . California Highway Patrol Officer Boshers first noticed Collins’s vehicle and registered it on his radar at 95 miles per hour. Boshers made a “U-turn” to follow the vehicle but was unable to catch up. Multiple other people witnessed the same. One witness described Collins’s vehicle “driving really, really fast.” The witness saw Collins swerve and almost lose control. He believed Collins drove through a red light at over 90 miles per hour. Another witness estimated Collins’s vehicle was traveling about 120 miles per hour. The car was moving so fast it was “wobbl[ing] ….” The car drove straight through a red light with other vehicles at the intersection. Yet another person witnessed Collins’s vehicle speeding at “about a hundred miles an hour, jump[] up on the center divider, and then c[o]me down off the divider and r[u]n into the back of another car” that was slowing for a red light. The collision “caus[ed] both vehicles to explode,” engulfing the rear-ended vehicle in flames. Two young women died in the fire and a third survived but with serious, long-term injuries and anguish."

Oh, yeah, and (1) Collins' girlfriend "warned him not to drive 'high' on a near daily basis; (2) Collins had prior strikes and previously served time in prison, and (3) when asked by an officer how often he drove drunk, Collins responded: "Too many times."  Not good.

The Court of Appeal is (understandably) just fine with his substantive conviction for murder, but there's a Batson problem.  The prosecutor struck an African-American woman from the jury, and the Court of Appeal concludes that there's a decent reason to believe that it was on account of her race. 

Not good either.

Yet even here, one's heart -- and head -- may be tugged in two different directions.

After all, I can see lots of reasons why a prosecutor might not want this particular individual on the jury.  Here's what the judge and prosecutor said below:

"The court added, “[B]ased on the direct observations that the Court had in having the opportunity to question Ms. [S.], it did appear to the Court that not only based on her profession does she have some understanding of potential evidence that might be presented in this case, even though she can set it aside, but just as importantly, if not more importantly, she herself was prosecuted for petty theft, as she put it, when she was younger, and she also has cousins that have been incarcerated, two in particular, that she shared with us, one being a result of assaulting his or her mother and another for assaultive allegations.”

The prosecutor agreed with the court and added, “[S]he indicated that one of her relatives … was convicted of charges as a result of an assault that resulted from what she termed a mental breakdown, which is psychologically similar, but not the same situation as the defense is arguing in this case.” He also noted that “prospective juror number one [was] also African-American and the People accepted the panel with her on it.”"

Okay.  You can see why this might not be the most pro-prosecution juror in the universe, right?  If only due to the prior criminal prosecution against her plus the experience of her relatives with the criminal justice system.

On the other hand, take a look at other jurors who the prosecution accepted on the jury:

"Juror 4237967’s brother was arrested for a crime. . . . Juror Micheal B. himself was involved with a crime. He answered he was convicted and the case was dismissed. . . . Juror Betty B. had two sons with cases involving DUI charges. One of her sons was twice imprisoned. She believed she could set aside their experiences and serve fairly as a juror. Juror 4301270’s stepson was arrested once. Her own son was convicted of a DUI by plea. She formed no opinion on whether they were treated fairly and could set their experiences aside and serve impartially. . . . Juror 4552487 was previously convicted of a DUI. . . . Juror John V. himself was convicted of DUI by plea. . . . Juror 4462349’s parents were involved with a crime."

Well, now.  Somewhat hard to distinguish the juror struck from the ones left on.  Or at least there's no explanation for it on the record below.  Which the Court of Appeal thinks might well suggest that the real difference was the color of the relevant juror's skin.  So the case gets remanded back to the trial court for more factfinding  Because, yes, Mr. Collins did a terrible, terrible thing.  But that's not the be-all-end-all in our criminal justice system.  The process needs to be fair also.  Including but not limited to not being discriminatory.