State of Missouri v. Stanley Carter: Mincing Words, Increasing Racial Divides

Joyce LaFontain
58 St. Louis U. L.J. Online 51 | PDF

Introduction

State v. Carter was an appeal brought to the Missouri Supreme Court by a criminal defendant from North Saint Louis claiming that the prosecutor’s striking of jurors based on their “familiarity with the area” was racially biased.[1] If proven, the prosecutor’s action would have violated the Equal Protection Clause’s prohibition against use of peremptory challenges to strike potential jurors on the basis of race.[2] The defendant’s attorney, however, failed to make a clear articulation of racial bias at the time of the objection at trial.[3] This allowed the Missouri Supreme Court to avoid a serious and much-needed discussion about racial divisions in the City of Saint Louis.

I. History

The defendant, Stanley Carter, appealed a conviction of first-degree assault and armed criminal action.[4] The crime took place at a carwash in Fairgrounds Park in the northern part of the city of Saint Louis.[5] Carter, his wife, and his wife’s friend testified that, on the day prior to the crime, Carter and his wife had brought home a newborn baby.[6] They further stated that Carter did not leave his house for several days after bringing the child home.[7] The trial began with a venire panel of fifteen African American venirepersons.[8] The prosecutor struck four of the fifteen for cause, and then the prosecutor used five of the allowed six peremptory challenges to strike other African Americans, leaving one remaining African American juror.[9]

The source of the defendant’s objection was the theory relied upon by the prosecutor in using three of the six peremptory challenges.[10] Carter’s attorney made a Batson challenge to protest peremptory challenges he believed to be motivated by racial bias,[11] requesting that the prosecutor provide a race-neutral explanation for the strikes.[12] The prosecutor gave three explanations, one for each of the challenged strikes.

The prosecutor justified the first strike based on his belief that the venireperson’s familiarity with the area, and its dangerous reputation, would lead him to “hold that against the victim in this case.”[13] The trial court allowed the reason to stand, finding that it was neither pretextual nor racially motivated.[14]

The prosecutor explained the theory behind the second peremptory strike as follows: “[E]very person [who was] familiar with the area, a known area of violence . . . has been struck for cause or peremptorily.”[15] Defendant’s counsel protested that no other individuals had been struck because of familiarity with the area and that familiarity with the violent character of an area did not constitute a reason to strike the venirepersons.[16] The prosecutor responded by listing the potential jurors that had admitted to his or her familiarity with the area, showing that each had been struck either for cause or peremptorily.[17] The defendant’s attorney did not press the objection any further, beyond simply stating that “the record speaks.”[18] The court allowed the strike, holding that the reason was neither pretextual nor racially motivated.[19]

The final peremptory strike for familiarity with the area was justified on the same theory as the second—that everyone who testified to familiarity with the area had been struck.[20] Defendant’s counsel again did not advocate for the objection, beyond simply reiterating that he found the theory pretextual.[21] Again, the court allowed the strike.[22]

II. Analysis

A.             Court’s Analysis

The court prefaced its discussion of the appeal by outlining the requirements for a Batson challenge.[23] Each challenge is treated with a three-step analysis.[24] The objecting defendant must first identify specific members of the venire that the state struck and the racial group to which they belong.[25] Second, the state must offer a reasonably specific and clear race-neutral explanation for the strike.[26] The court explained that, at this point in the analysis, the state’s explanation will be deemed race-neutral if it is not inherently discriminatory, even if it has a disparate impact on venirepersons of a particular racial group.[27]

The final step shifts the burden back to the defendant to prove that the state’s explanation was merely pretextual and that the strikes were racially motivated.[28] In considering whether the state’s reason was pretextual, courts must consider a variety of factors, the concern being that the explanation must be plausible in light of the totality of the facts and circumstances of the given case.[29] A court reviewing a lower court’s ruling on a Batson challenge will only overturn the decision if it is clearly erroneous and the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm conviction that the trial court made a mistake.[30]

The Missouri Supreme Court relied upon the above framework to determine that the trial court’s ruling on the Batson challenge was not clearly erroneous or mistaken.[31] The court began its review of the appeal by acknowledging that, because the defendant did not contest that familiarity with the area had been found to be a race-neutral explanation for a peremptory strike, the only remaining issue was whether the explanation was pretextual.[32]

With respect to the defendant’s argument that the state’s theory was based on pretext, the court found that it failed for two reasons. First was the failure of the defendant’s attorney to raise the pretext argument at trial; a reviewing court will only consider arguments that have been presented to the trial court.[33] Second, the court dismissed the substance of the argument, stating that “while here everyone who expressed familiarity with the area was African American, anyone, regardless of race, can be familiar with a particular area of a city.”[34] No particular statement was made regarding the implications of familiarity in the specific location of the trial.[35] The court ultimately held that the trial court did not clearly err in overruling the Batson challenges.

The concurring opinion, authored by Judge George Draper, departed from the majority’s generalized statements and instead acknowledged the implications of “being familiar with” the specific area at issue. The judge noted that, had the defense counsel articulated some sort of explanation of how the state’s offered reasons for its peremptory strikes were discriminatory, there “would have been enough to sustain his Batson challenge.”[36] Judge Draper discussed the point that the majority asserted that it could not touch, absent a viable argument from Carter’s attorney: “the area in question, Fairgrounds Park in north S[aint] Louis City, is almost an exclusively African[ ]American neighborhood.”[37] Moreover, he noted that it is almost certain that both the prosecutor and the trial judge were aware of the area’s unique racial demographic.[38]

B.             Author’s Analysis

North Saint Louis City is “a particular area of a city” that deserves a deeper analysis than afforded by the court in this instance. A more spirited defense by the defendant’s attorney could have sparked a meaningful discussion of whether, in fact, “anyone, regardless of race, can be familiar with” the particular area. Saint Louis is a patchwork quilt: rich with history. Immigrants initially settled in ethnic islands, some of which retain their distinct identity today.[39] Locals grow up going to Dogtown for St. Patrick’s Day, Soulard for Mardi Gras, and the Hill for an authentic Italian meal. Each historically-sewn square of the quilt has its specialty, but not all are equally esteemed. Residents of Saint Louis follow an unmarked north-south divide, isolating one area in particular as the “bad part of town.”[40]

Widespread use of racial deed covenants and other restrictions on African Americans’ choice in real property resulted in clear divisions in settlement patterns throughout the 1940s and 1950s.[41] Saint Louis’s historical ethnic partitioning intensified into segregation, with one east-west running street, Delmar, serving as the city’s north-south divide.[42]

The divide is more than an informal trend in housing patterns; rather, it has been recognized on a national[43] and even international stage.[44] Studies of racial segregation in major U.S. cities cite Saint Louis as one of the most deeply divided cities.[45] Thus, in Saint Louis, the words “North City” have a clearly understood connotation: African American. Reference to census data provides a resounding confirmation.[46]

The attorney for the defendant doubtless knew this facet of Saint Louis history.  Articulation of these truths would have undoubtedly been a more than satisfactory rebuttal to the prosecution’s prima facie showing of racial neutrality. When asked to explain his theory of racial bias, however, all he could muster was, “[T]he record speaks for itself.” Was the attorney asleep at the wheel? Was he fatigued by a legal system that relies on euphemisms such as “familiarity with the area”? If the attorney had seen the argument through to the end, this case would have presented the Missouri Supreme Court with an exciting opportunity to ignore the easy route and instead tackle the deeply felt, and dangerously crippling, north-south divide.

The court would have likely passed up the opportunity, predisposed as it is to avoid political issues. It is possible, though, that more spirited advocacy on the part of the attorney for the defendant would have garnered a more tailored analysis of the totality of the circumstances than the broad one given by the court that “anyone, regardless of race, can be familiar with a particular area of a city.”[47] Forcing the unique character of the north-south divide to the forefront and exposing its permeation into the legal system would have focused more attention to the divide: a crucial step in healing the chasm.

Conclusion

The jurors were “familiar with the area,” but so were the prosecutor, the defendant’s counsel, and every judge involved. Admitting to the racial divide is an essential step in correcting it, and the legal system must do its part. Although correct in its determination that it was not faced with the ultimate decision of whether the state’s race-neutral explanation was pretextual, the court’s quick dismissal of the potential for bias may not have been as easy if the issue had been properly argued. Judge Draper’s concurrence indicates that the court might just be ready to participate in the conversation.

Joyce LaFontain*

 



[1] State v. Carter, 415 S.W.3d 685, 687-688 (Mo. 2013) (en banc).

[2] Id. (citing Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 89 (1986); State v. Marlowe, 89 S.W.3d 464, 468 (Mo. 2002) (en banc)).

[3] Carter, 415 S.W.3d at 689.

[4] Id. at 687.

[5] Id. at 692. (Draper, J., concurring).

[6] Brief for Appellant at 9, State v. Carter, 415 S.W.3d 685 (Mo. banc 2013) (No. ED97969).

[7] Id.

[8] Carter, 415 S.W.3d at 687.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] State v. Parker, 836 S.W.2d 930, 933 (Mo. banc 1992).

[12] Carter, 415 S.W.3d at 688.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Carter, 415 S.W.3d at 688.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Carter, 415 S.W.3d at 688.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.at 689.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Carter, 415 S.W.3d at 689.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Carter, 415 S.W.3d at 689.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id. at 685-92.

[36] Id. at 691 (Draper, J., concurring).

[37] Carter, 415 S.W.3d at 692.

[38] Id.

[39] A Preservation Plan for St. Louis Part I: Historic Contexts: Peopling St. Louis: The Immigration Experience, The City of St. Louis Missouri, https://stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/planning/cultural-resources/preservation-plan/Part-I-Peopling-St-Louis.cfm  (describing in particular the settlement patterns of Irish and German immigrants to St. Louis).

[40] Rachel Lippmann, Bound by Division – Race in St. Louis, St. Louis Public Radio (Apr. 15, 2011), http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/bound-division-race-st-louis (noting that some residents believe that north of Delmar has “become a ‘no-go’ zone for white families.”).

[41]Colin Gordon, White Flight, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City, http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/map/ (last visited Jan. 15, 2014).

[42] Heuer et al., Discussing The ‘Delmar Divide’: A Line of Stark Racial and Economic Division In St. Louis, St. Louis Public Radio (Dec. 11, 2012), http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/discussing-delmar-divide-line-stark-racial-and-economic-division-st-louis.

[43] John Eligon, In Places Like North St. Louis, Gunfire Still Rules the Night, The New York Times (Nov. 19, 2013), http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/20/us/in-neighborhoods-like-north-st-louis-gunfire-still-rules-the-night.html?pagewanted=all; Nick Pistor, New York Times Focuses on Crime in North St. Louis as City Seeks to Change Image, Political Fix, STL Today (Nov. 20, 2013), http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/nick-pistor/new-york-times-focuses-on-crime-in-north-st-louis/article_37d86b0c-ff54-5aea-809f-75d537c614f5.html.

[44] Crossing a St. Louis Street that Divides Communities, BBC (Mar. 13, 2012), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17361995.

[45] Edward Glaeser & Jacob Vigdor, The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (Jan. 2012), www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_66.htm (Table 5 in particular features data regarding segregation in St. Louis City).

[46] Dustin A. Cable, The Racial Dot Map, University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, http://demographics.coopercenter.org/DotMap/index.html (last visited Jan. 15, 2013) (an interactive online map displaying 2010 census data regarding the racial composition of the United States).

[47] Carter, 415 S.W.3d at 689 (emphasis added).

* J.D. Candidate, 2015, Saint Louis University School of Law. I give my sincerest thanks to the editors and staff of the Saint Louis University Law Journal for assisting in the publication of this summary. I would like to dedicate this work to the memory of Elizabeth Davenport (“Aunt E”), at whose dining room table I spent many happy hours learning the history of the city of Saint Louis.