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State v. Bates: Reversed for Racial Bias

By: Megan Patituce

            The importance of voir dire cannot be overstated.  It is the only opportunity counsel has to directly speak with jurors to determine fitness for service on a particular case.  The seriousness of this responsibility is put to the most significant test when a defendant is on trial for his life.

            In State v. Bates, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-634 (Feb. 27, 2020), the defendant was facing the death penalty for the murder of a child.  Within the juror questionnaires, one juror had noted that she sometimes did not feel comfortable around black people and that she strongly agreed with the premise that “some races and/or ethnic groups tend to be more violent than others,” specifically noting “blacks.” 

            Given that Mr. Bates is a black male, the answers should have raised red flags.  However, this juror was never questioned as to her written comments.  She was not challenged for cause or removed by way of peremptory challenge.  Rather, this juror was ultimately empaneled.

            The Ohio Supreme Court held that trial counsel’s failure to inquire of this actually biased juror constituted ineffective assistance of counsel and, as such, reversed and remanded Mr. Bates’s conviction.  Trial counsel took no steps to determine whether the juror could actually be impartial in light of the actual bias set forth within her written responses.  In so doing, trial counsel permitted an actually biased juror to sit not only in judgment of the guilt of a black man, but also in judgment of punishment. 

            The Court made clear that public confidence in the judicial system may be irreparably tarnished by racial bias.  Defense attorneys are tasked with ensuring that defendants in capital cases, such as Mr. Bates, are afforded the full protections of the United States and Ohio Constitutions to ensure a fair trial.  Failure to guard against racial bias deprives defendants of the right to effective counsel and irreversibly taints a conviction.

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