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Coombs v. Diguglielmo

July 30, 2010


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Criminal No. 2-04-cv-01841) District Judge: Honorable Cynthia M Rufe.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: McKEE, Chief Judge


Submitted Pursuant to Third Circuit LAR 34.1(a) October 2, 2009

Before: McKEE, Chief Judge, CHAGARES, and NYGAARD, Circuit Judges.


Wayne Coombs appeals from the district court's denial of the habeas corpus petition he filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2241(c)(3) and 2254. He argues that the prosecutor exercised his peremptory challenges in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). For the reasons set forth below, we will remand this matter to the district court for an evidentiary hearing on Coombs' Batson challenge.

I. Factual Background

On February 22, 2000, Coombs was arrested for a string of robberies that took place in Philadelphia from the fall of 1999 into the winter of 2000. The charges stemming from those robberies were consolidated for a trial which began in September 2001. At that trial, the majority of the prosecution's evidence came from eyewitnesses who identified Coombs as the armed robber. Coombs' mother testified on his behalf. Both Coombs and his mother are Black. Nearly all of the prosecution witnesses, including the robbery victims and police officers, are White. The trial ended in a hung jury.

Coombs was re-tried beginning in November 2001. On the first day of voir dire, the prosecutor raised a "reverse Batson" challenge because defense counsel struck three White jurors.*fn1 The prosecutor told the court that, "[i]t happened the last time, but I didn't do anything about it. I'm doing something about it this time." App. at 106. Defense counsel provided the following explanation for his peremptory strikes: (1) Juror No. 35 stated that she would be more likely to believe police officers than another citizen and she had two friends that had been abducted from the street; (2) Juror No. 8 had two brothers-inlaw who were retired police officers, a couple of her neighbors were police officers, and she was married to a firefighter; and (3) Juror No. 21 indicated that "she would have problems . . . following instructions that the defendant doesn't have to take the stand or present evidence, and that it couldn't be held against him if he elects to remain silent," her father-in-law was a retired police sergeant, she stated that she would be inclined to believe the testimony of a police officer, and she worked at a bank that had been robbed. App. at 106-09.

Defense counsel also raised a Batson challenge based on the prosecutor's use of two peremptory strikes against Black females. Defense counsel told the court that "the last jury hung because of a [B]lack female. Today we had two [B]lack females. Both of them have been stricken for no good reasons." App. at 110. The court then asked the prosecutor: "Why don't you just put your reasons on the record?" Id. The prosecutor initially responded that defense counsel is "just retaliating for what I did," id., but then said that he struck Juror No. 19 because she "was an eyewitness to a shooting, and her mother was robbed, she said, a long time ago." App. at 110-12. He stated that he struck Juror No. 14 because his brother "was charged with robbery over fifteen years ago." Id.

The court denied both motions, stating: "These are what lawyers do with peremptory challenges. They're not race-based. . . . As long as we have peremptory challenges, lawyers are going to make judgments maybe based on hunches, maybe based on prior experiences, maybe based on feelings, but they're not based on race. Both of you are much too good lawyers to do something like that." App. at 112.

At the conclusion of voir dire, defense counsel again raised the Batson challenge. He noted that the prosecutor used five of his six peremptory challenges to strike Black venire persons, and more specifically, that the prosecutor had used four peremptory strikes against Black females and one against a Black male. App. at 138. Before the prosecutor could offer a racially-neutral explanation, as required under Batson, the trial court stated: "I'm not finding there's another pattern." Id. The prosecutor nevertheless explained that Juror No. 22's cousin had been a witness to a robbery and that Juror No. 4 had a nephew who had recently been shot, another nephew in jail awaiting gun charges, and a friend who was a defense attorney.

After the prosecutor concluded, defense counsel questioned the prosecutor's use of a peremptory strike to remove Juror No. 1, a Black male. The prosecutor's entire explanation was as follows:

I just didn't like him, your Honor. I don't really have a sound reason. . . . I don't know, just the way he was looking at me.

If that's a reason, it's justified, but your Honor found there's no pattern. I mean, I just didn't like him, and he didn't check off many boxes, but I went with my hunch. . . .

App. at 140.

The court's only response was: "Let's go. Are we ready to? Do we have the bills?" Id. Defense counsel then inquired: "Your Honor is going to accept the ...

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