Wyoming’s highest court found in a three-to-two ruling that a black man on trial for drunk driving may have been discriminated against when a black woman was dismissed from jury duty.
The ruling came in response to an appeal by Brandon D. Roberts, who was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in Cheyenne. After a 1 1/2 day trial, he was convicted of the crime.
During jury selection for the trial, the potential juror was dismissed by the prosecution without cause, which is allowed by Wyoming law. However, there are limits to that discretion.
In the 1980s, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment ensures potential jurors cannot be dismissed on the basis of race. As part of the 1986 ruling, the court created a three-part test to determine whether a potential juror was properly excluded from the case.
After two hearings during the August 2016 trial, a judge determined prosecutor Joshua Taylor successfully cleared the test. A jury convicted Roberts of drunk driving for the fourth time in 10 years, a felony offense.
On appeal, the Wyoming Supreme Court determined the first two legs of the test were satisfied by the prosecutor.
However, the Supreme Court found concerns with the final component of the test. The prosecutor had said that the woman had asked about substances other than alcohol. However, a court reporter’s record indicated she did not speak during jury selection, according to the ruling, which was authored by Justice Kate Fox.
On that basis, the majority of justices ordered a third hearing to determine if the woman was dismissed for a race-neutral reason. If Taylor is unable to give the trial judge a credible race-neutral explanation for the dismissal, Roberts’s conviction will be vacated.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Keith Kautz wrote that the prosecutor’s statements were accurate. The transcript indicates that the prosecutor had simply misidentified the potential juror when referring to her, Kautz wrote. Additionally, because the prosecutor identified the woman’s demeanor as a reason for striking her from the jury, even if he had misstated the facts, the trial should still be upheld, Kautz wrote.
Laramie County District Attorney Jeremiah Sandburg was not immediately available to comment Tuesday.
Roberts was sentenced to three to five years imprisonment upon his conviction and remains incarcerated at the Wyoming Honor Farm, according to corrections department records.