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Supreme Court restores California rape conviction

The justices rebuke the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for overturning Steven Jackson's conviction. The high court calls the earlier opinion 'inexplicable.'

March 22, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court unanimously restored the conviction of a California rapist Monday and rebuked the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for handing down an opinion it called "inexplicable" and "dismissive" in tone.

The decision marked the 10th time since November that the justices had reversed rulings of the 9th Circuit Court; nearly all of the decisions were unanimous.

The justices have repeatedly faulted the San Francisco-based appeals court for intervening in state criminal cases and second-guessing rulings of the California state courts. Their opinion reflected an unusual tone of irritation.

The Supreme Court said "the court of appeals offered a one-sentence conclusory explanation" for setting aside the rulings of a series of state judges in the case of a Sacramento-area rapist. "That decision is as inexplicable as it is unexplained. It is reversed," the justices said in an unsigned opinion.

In January, the high court faulted the 9th Circuit Court for ordering several state prisoners to be paroled, saying such decisions are left to state officials, not federal judges. State prisoners have no constitutional right to be paroled, the justices said.

The latest case arose after a jury convicted Steven Jackson of raping and robbing a 72-year-old woman in her apartment. Because of an earlier conviction for a sexual assault, he was sentenced to life in prison.

The legal dispute concerned the selection of jurors. When the two sides were screening potential jurors, the prosecutor acted to remove two African Americans and cited aspects of their background. The defense attorney for Jackson, who is African American, questioned the moves, but the trial judge agreed the prosecutor had valid "race neutral" reasons for removing the pair. Only one African American was on the jury.

Under Supreme Court precedents, a trial judge must examine the reasons for removing jurors if there is a suspicion of racial bias.

A California appeals court later affirmed Jackson's convictions, ruling that the trial judge handled the matter properly. The state Supreme Court and a U.S. district court later rejected appeals from Jackson.

Last year, however, Jackson's appeal reached the 9th Circuit Court. In July, a three-judge panel reversed his conviction in its brief opinion. It said the prosecutor's reasons for "striking the two African American jurors were not sufficient to counter the evidence of purposeful discrimination in light of the fact that two of three prospective African American jurors were stricken, and the record reflected different treatment of comparably situated jurors."

The California attorney general's office appealed to the Supreme Court in December and called the ruling "extraordinary."

"Here, a now-80-year-old rape victim will have to endure the retrial of a brutal rape," state prosecutors said. "Such an intrusion into the state's criminal justice system is warranted only in extreme circumstances."

david.savage@latimes.com

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