San Mateo County prosecutor Stephen Wagstaffe, who could soon become the county’s next district attorney, got dinged by a Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel on Tuesday for discriminatory jury selection.
The panel, led by Judge Marsha Berzon, overturned a high-profile 2001 murder conviction because Wagstaffe struck the only two black people in the jury pool during voir dire.
Wagstaffe said today in an interview that he stood by his peremptory challenges. He said he has “never misrepresented anything in a courtroom” in 32 years of practicing and that he doesn’t think the decision will hurt his chances of becoming district attorney.
“I don’t think you can find anyone, anywhere who would ever question my integrity,” he said.
(Unless you look on the Ninth Circuit, one supposes.) More after the jump.
A.J. Kutchins, a Berkeley-based appellate lawyer who argued Ali’s case, said that Wagstaffe is known as an able prosecutor and that his voir dire strategy did not “differ from what most DAs do in most courtrooms in California.”
Wagstaffe secured a sentence of 55 years to life in prison for Mohammed Haroon Ali, who murdered girlfriend Tracey Biletnikoff, the daughter of former Oakland Raider Fred Biletnikoff. But the Ninth Circuit, reversing both a federal district court and a California court of appeal, decided that Wagstaffe’s reasons for striking the two black jurors were pretexts and ordered Ali’s conviction reversed. Deputy Attorney General Michele Swanson, who represented the state on Ali’s habeas petition, did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.
According to the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, Wagstaffe’s three reasons for striking one of the jurors didn’t stand up to scrutiny, and the fact that he struck the only other black juror for questionable reasons as well showed that he acted with “discriminatory intent.”
Wagstaffe’s three reasons for striking the juror known as M.C. were: She had come into contact with the criminal justice system when her daughter was molested; she would frown on the attorneys if they didn’t always act “decent” and “respectable”; and her Christian faith made her hesitate in answering a question about judging another person. But the Ninth Circuit noted that Wagstaffe had accepted two white jurors with “more problematic” criminal justice experiences, that M.C.’s expectations of decent behavior were reasonable, and that Wagstaffe didn’t seem to care about M.C.’s Christian faith before he was asked to justify his challenge to her, and had accepted a Jehovah’s Witness who made statements more equivocal than M.C.’s.
Wagstaffe said that he would retry Ali if the attorney general’s office does not seek further review and the case is remanded to San Mateo County Superior Court.
“I mean, the man confessed to killing Tracey,” he said.
— Evan Hill