Iowa Supreme Court holds Black defendant not harmed by juror strike, but three justices object to a race-related reference in juror questioning

by Rox Laird | May 10, 2023

A prosecutor did not discriminate against a Black criminal defendant by striking a Black member of the jury pool, the Iowa Supreme Court held in a decision handed down April 21, but three members of the Court in a separate opinion expressed concerns regarding a prosecutor’s question to prospective jurors about their opinions of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Patrick Henry Booker Jr. was convicted by a Dubuque County jury of third-degree sexual abuse and the jury found he had committed a prior sexual offence, which enhanced the penalty. Booker was sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment.

On appeal, Booker, who is Black, argued the prosecutor’s strike of a Black jury pool member – identified in the case as Juror 38 – was racially discriminatory and violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. and Iowa constitutions.

Guided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s equal-protection analysis in the a 1986 decision, Batson v. Kentucky, the Iowa Supreme Court concluded the prosecutor did not cross a constitutional line.

The decision was written by Justice Dana Oxley and joined by all members of the Court except Justice David May, who did not participate in the case.

Under the Batson framework, a party challenging a peremptory strike as discriminatory must establish a prima facie case of purposeful racial discrimination in the strike, and the State must offer a race-neutral explanation for its strike.

The District Court concluded the prosecution did not engage in a pattern of racial discrimination in making its juror strikes and that it provided a race-neutral basis for the strike of Juror 38. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed.

The prosecutor offered two justifications for its strike: (1) Juror 38’s work obligations that may interfere with jury service, and (2) his views about his cousin’s imprisonment for a crime similar to the one Booker was charged with.

“Both of these are facially race-neutral reasons,” Oxley wrote.

However, a question posed by the prosecutor to some prospective jurors regarding Black Lives Matter prompted an objection by three justices.

Due to Covid restrictions during Booker’s trial, the jury pool was divided into smaller groups. On the first day of questioning, the prosecutor asked whether any of the jurors had “attended, spoke at, or otherwise supported a demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter.” Two jurors answered in the affirmative, but the prosecutor did not pursue the matter further that day. And, on the second day, when Juror 38 was questioned, he was not asked about Black Lives Matter.

Although the majority opinion said that question “may have needlessly inserted race into this case,” because the question was not asked in Juror 38’s presence and the prosecutor did not follow up on the question after two jurors gave affirmative responses, “it does not alter our Batson analysis.”

Justice Edward Mansfield, writing in a separate opinion joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justice Matthew McDermott, said the Black Lives Matter question coming just four months after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers was inappropriate.

“This case involved a Black defendant, but it wasn’t a case with racial overtones, and it wasn’t a case about police conduct,” he wrote. “It was about a rape, convincingly described in detail” by the victim.

Mansfield wrote that questioning of prospective jurors often includes factual questions to get at a prospective juror’s underlying outlook and beliefs, Mansfield wrote, and the Black Lives Matter question in this case was aimed at getting at prospective jurors’ views on race.

“One good way of testing the legitimacy of [this type of] question is to consider how we would feel if the lawyer asked the direct version of the question, instead of the proxy version,” Mansfield wrote. “For example, could the prosecutor have asked here, ‘Are you concerned about the status of Black Americans in this country?’ “I would find that quite troubling.”

Justice Mansfield added, “just as we don’t allow prosecutors to reflexively strike Black Americans from juries, we shouldn’t allow prosecutors to reflexively strike whites who might be sympathetic to Black Americans.”







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