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Sanchez v. Roden

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

February 4, 2015

DAGOBERTO SANCHEZ, Petitioner,
v.
GARY RODEN, Respondent.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON PETITION FOR A WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS

F. DENNIS SAYLOR, IV, District Judge.

This is an action by a state prisoner seeking a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254. Petitioner Dagoberto Sanchez was convicted in Suffolk County of second-degree murder and unlawful possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment (with the possibility of parole after 15 years) on the murder conviction and a concurrent two-year term on the firearm conviction. Sanchez now seeks habeas relief, contending that the prosecution deliberately exercised peremptory challenges to strike young men on the basis of race in violation of his constitutional rights.

For the reasons set forth below, the petition will be denied.

I. Background

A. Procedural Background

This matter is on remand from the Court of Appeals. Petitioner initially sought a writ of habeas corpus in this Court, alleging that the Commonwealth impermissibly exercised multiple peremptory challenges on the basis of race. On appeal from this Court's denial of the petition, the Court of Appeals found that petitioner had made out a prima face case of discrimination. Sanchez v. Roden, 753 F.3d at 307. Specifically, it held that petitioner had satisfied his burden under Batson v. Kentucky in raising an inference of possible racial discrimination in the prosecution's exercise of a peremptory challenge against juror 261, an African-American male. Id .; see Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).[1] It directed the Court to conduct an evidentiary hearing and complete the inquiry under Batson. Sanchez, 753 F.3d at 308 (1st Cir. 2014); see Batson, 476 U.S. 79. Specifically, it directed as follows:

[The district] court should attempt to conduct the second and third Batson steps. It should require the prosecutor to explain his challenge[]. If the prosecutor offers a raceneutral explanation, the court must try to evaluate that explanation and decide whether defendant has proved purposeful racial discrimination. If the court finds that, due to the passage of time or any other reason, it cannot adequately address the issues at this stage or make a reliable determination, or if it determines that the prosecutor exercised his peremptory challenges improperly, it should set the case for a new trial. If it finds the prosecutor exercised his peremptory challenge[] in a permissible fashion, it should [affirm] the judgment.

Sanchez v. Roden, 753 F.3d at 308 (alteration in original) (quoting People v. Johnson, 136 P.3d 804 (Cal. 2006)).

On September 8, 2014, the Court held an evidentiary hearing. The only witness at the hearing was Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Mark Lee, who was the lead prosecutor at Sanchez's trial.

B. Factual Background

Unless otherwise stated, the following facts are taken from transcripts and juror questionnaires from Sanchez's trial or Lee's testimony at the September 8, 2014 hearing.

The facts surrounding the crime that led to Sanchez's conviction are set out in the decision of the Massachusetts Appeals Court on the his direct appeal, and only the facts that are relevant to this opinion bear repetition. See Commonwealth v. Sanchez, 79 Mass.App.Ct. 189 (2011).

Dagoberto Sanchez was charged with second-degree murder and unlawful possession of a firearm. Commonwealth v. Sanchez, 79 Mass.App.Ct. 189, 189 (2011). Sanchez contended that he had acted in self-defense and in the defense of another. Id.

Jury empanelment for the trial began on September 25, 2006. Judge Thomas E. Connolly of the Massachusetts Superior Court was the presiding judge. Prior to the voir dire, the prosecution and defense were given copies of one-page written questionnaires that had been completed by each prospective juror. The juror questionnaires included basic information such as the juror's name, age, city or town of residence, marital status, occupation, spouse's occupation, and whether the juror had children. The questionnaires also included three or four discrete questions concerning a juror's past experiences with, and connections to, the criminal justice system.

Assistant District Attorney Mark Lee was the chief prosecutor for the Commonwealth. Lee testified that once he receives the questionnaires, it is his practice, "at least as is practicable, to look through every questionnaire and make sort of a preliminary indication." (E.R. at 10). Lee explained that he looks at these questionnaires before the judge calls the court to order and during any preliminary remarks. (E.R. at 11). More specifically, he testified that "almost the first demographic I look at on that questionnaire is the age of the individual." (E.R. at 30).

Judge Connolly began the empanelment process with a series of questions to the entire venire that were intended to address possible biases. (Tr. Sep. 25, 2006 at 64-82). Once that voir dire was completed, jurors were brought forward one by one, in ascending numerical order, and examined individually. Judge Connolly then either excused the juror for cause or determined that no such cause existed. If the juror was not excused for cause, the judge gave both attorneys an opportunity to exercise a peremptory challenge. The prosecution and the defense were granted 16 challenges each. The prosecutor was always asked for his decision first; if the prosecutor did not exercise a challenge, defense counsel was then given an opportunity to do so. If both sides chose not to exercise a challenge, the juror was immediately seated and there was no further opportunity to strike the juror.

Lee testified that during such a process, it is his practice to "always monitor[] how many peremptory challenges [he has] left versus how many peremptory challenges defense counsel has left" and also to consider "what [he] understand[s] to be upcoming based upon the questionnaires." (E.R. at 15). If a juror questionnaire includes a response that concerns him, it is his practice to ask the judge to follow up on that response. (E.R. at 28-29). He also testified that he challenges young jurors "as a general practice." (E.R. at 28).

Lee exercised his fifth peremptory challenge on juror 201, a 25-year-old male named L.D.[2] L.D. indicated on his questionnaire that he was born in Trinidad. (E.R. at 14, 33; S.A. at 281). His race is not clearly indicated in the record, although he appears to have been dark-skinned. The questionnaire further indicated that he was employed part-time as a computer technician. (S.A. at 281). The only other pieces of information on the questionnaire were his address and that he was single with no children. ( Id. ). He responded in the negative to all of the judge's inquiries as to whether he would have any difficulty being a fair and impartial juror. (Tr. Sep. 25, 2006 at 165-70). Lee testified that he challenged L.D. due to his age. (E.R. at 14).

Lee exercised his seventh challenge on juror 227, a 24-year-old black male named P.M. (E.R. at 14, 36, 38; S.A. at 282). P.M. indicated on his questionnaire that he was an employee of City Year Inc. in Boston and that his highest academic degree was a G.E.D. (S.A. at 282). He also disclosed that he had once been arrested for a "[t]raffic violation that went unpaid." ( Id. ). He responded in the negative to all of the judge's inquiries as to whether he would have any difficulty being a fair and impartial juror. (Tr. Sep. 26, 2006 at 13-16). Lee testified that he challenged P.M. due to his age. (E.R. at 14-15, 37).

Lee exercised his eighth challenge on juror 229, a white male named R.C. who was a sophomore at Boston University. (E.R. at 38-39). His exact age is not reflected in the record, but presumably he was approximately 19 years old. R.C. responded in the negative to all of the judge's inquiries as to whether he would have any difficulty being a fair and impartial juror. (Tr. Sep. 26, 2006 at 19-23). Lee could not specifically recall his reasoning behind challenging R.C.; however, he testified that based on his general practice, he believes he challenged R.C. "because he was in college and because of his age." (E.R. at 38). He further testified that he "could tell you with almost 100 percent certainty if he was in college and he was young, I was going to strike him, and I did strike him." (E.R. at 38-39).

Lee did not challenge juror 243, a 21-year-old white male of Russian descent named I.R. (E.R. at 43; S.A. at 293). I.R.'s questionnaire specifically indicated that he had been born in Moscow, Russia. (S.A. at 293). It further indicated that he was a student at Boston University and that he worked part-time for a non-profit organization. ( Id. ). Lee testified that he did not challenge I.R., "despite not wanting to take him, " in part because he was "running out of challenges at that point, " in part due to some of I.R.'s characteristics that "barely" overcame his youth, and in part "based upon an examination of who remained in the venire." (E.R. at 13, 43, 45). Lee specifically testified:

I took him, despite not wanting to take him, but I was-there are a number of young jurors who I will take based upon what I consider to be indications on their questionnaire that might make them not fit their chronological age, which is to say that he was 21 years old, but I noted he was born in Moscow, I noted that he came here on his own to begin his own education, and so I thought if I had to take a young juror, that would be somebody who might be a better candidate than most.

(E.R. at 13). He further explained that his "inclination was to strike him":

It was more of a hold-your-nose situation and take him because I thought somebody who came to this country to go to school at the age of 21 may have been chronologically a little bit older than someone else in terms of life experiences, and that's really what I'm looking at that somebody who has some level of maturity and life experience.

(E.R. at 44). He later clarified that "[I] didn't mean that I knew his life history. I knew he was 21, and I knew that he was here attending school and he was born in another country." At the time, Lee had six challenges remaining and defense counsel had twelve. (E.R. at 45). When defense counsel also chose not to challenge I.R., he became the ninth juror seated.

Lee exercised his eleventh challenge on juror 246, a 41-year-old man born in Guatemala named M.C. (E.R. at 52-53; S.A. at 283). During his individual voir dire, M.C. responded to a portion of Judge Connolly's questioning as follows:

Q Is there any reason you can think of that you, as a juror, might not be able to be fair and impartial to the Commonwealth and to the defendant, Mr. Sanchez, and to decide this case solely on the law and the evidence as given in this case?
A I hope I could be fair.
Q Well, is there any question in your mind whether you could be fair?
A No.
Q ...

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