Jurors' Death Penalty Views Not Tied To Race, Colo. Justices Say

By Thy Vo | February 20, 2024, 7:48 PM EST ·

The Colorado Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously rejected a Black man's efforts to reverse his 2008 murder conviction for a drive-by shooting, with the justices finding that prosecutors' dismissal of two Black jurors did not amount to improper racial bias.

In an opinion published Tuesday, the justices said they found no clear error in a trial court's decision to strike the two jurors from Sir Mario Owens' murder trial.

While Owens contended the two Black jurors were improperly sent home because of their race, prosecutors cited valid, "race-neutral" reasons to dismiss the prospective jurors, such as their views on the death penalty, the court said in affirming Owens' conviction.

The justices also disagreed with Owens' contention that prosecutors didn't scrutinize white jurors as closely as one of the Black jurors, Juror J.C., who initially said she couldn't impose the death penalty for religious reasons but later changed her mind.

"The record reveals that the prosecution engaged in a thorough voir dire of those jurors, and any differences in the questioning was attributable to the extent and nature of those jurors' hesitation to impose the death penalty," Justice Richard L. Gabriel wrote in finding prosecutors consistently struck jurors who expressed opposition to or difficulty imposing the death penalty.

The court also rejected all of Owens' evidentiary arguments for reversal, including his claim that evidence about an earlier shooting should not have been presented at the trial.

Prosecutors with the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office had argued the 2005 drive-by was an effort to intimidate witnesses to a shooting one year earlier in Aurora, Colorado's Lowry Park neighborhood.

The trial court had wide latitude to decide how much evidence was appropriate, the high court said.

"Although the Lowry Park evidence was, to some degree, prejudicial, it was not unfairly prejudicial because a good amount of this evidence was necessary to establish the prosecution's theory of its case," Justice Gabriel said. "And although we might have reached a different conclusion than the trial court were we deciding in the first instance how much of the Lowry Park evidence to admit … we perceive no abuse of discretion in its determination."

Justice Carlos A. Samour Jr. did not participate in the opinion.

In a statement Tuesday, the legal team representing Owens said they disagreed with the justices' legal and factual conclusions and intend to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. Owens, who was convicted of the drive-by murders in 2008 at age 22, is serving a life sentence.

"Mr. Owens was a young Black man when he was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Black jurors who would have otherwise sat on the case were improperly excluded from service; there was a mountain of unfairly prejudicial evidence admitted at trial; and, the district court placed unreasonable limitations on Mr. Owens's ability to present a viable defense," Owens' team said. "Our position has always been that Mr. Owens didn't receive a fair trial before an impartial jury of his peers."

18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner said he was "pleased" with the ruling Tuesday but disappointed by Gov. Jared Polis' 2020 decision to commute Owens' death sentence, after state lawmakers eliminated the death penalty in Colorado.

"From the beginning, our team has fought to hold this murderer fully accountable for his heinous crimes. A fair and impartial jury unanimously found him guilty and imposed our harshest sentence under the law — the death penalty," Kellner said.

The case involves a 2004 shooting at a public rap battle in the Lowry Park neighborhood of Aurora that killed organizer Gregory Vann and injured two others. About a year after that shooting, in June 2005, one of the injured organizers, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his girlfriend Vivian Wolfe were killed in a drive-by shooting.

Owens was convicted for Vann's murder in 2007. He and two others were separately charged with first-degree murder and witness intimidation for the drive-by, which prosecutors argued was an effort to intimidate witnesses to the Lowry Park shooting.

In his brief to the state Supreme Court, Owens argued that race imbued the entire trial, with prosecutors essentially placing "urban Black culture on trial for an all-white jury." In addition to the exclusion of two Black jurors, he alleged that the court unfairly precluded him from questioning jurors about racial bias.

Although the trial court judge didn't allow Owens to ask jurors about their race on a written questionnaire, the court didn't keep him from questioning prospective jurors about race or racial bias during voir dire, the justices said.

Prosecutors also "did not advance an overtly race-based challenge" when they sent home a Black man referred to as Juror C.W., the high court said.

In response to a question about "pleasant or unpleasant" experiences with law enforcement, Juror C.W. wrote "DWB," shorthand for "Driving while Black." Owens claimed the trial court wrongfully upheld Juror C.W.'s strike despite acknowledging the juror's response had a "racial overtone."

The fact that prosecutors questioned the juror about his "driving while Black" response doesn't, in of itself, suggest bias, the justices said. Prosecutors also offered other valid explanations for removing Juror C.W. from the jury, such as his consumption of "very liberal media" and his views on the death penalty.

Owens also can't use a comparison to white jurors who reported negative experiences with police to claim Juror C.W. was treated differently, Justice Gabriel wrote.

Those jurors spoke about incidents in which they received traffic tickets, which would be a negative experience for most people regardless of race, according to the opinion.

The court also found "no grounds" to conclude that the consecutive dismissal of the Black jurors revealed racial motivation for the peremptory strikes.

Owens' case is among a number of criminal appeals before the state Supreme Court involving allegations that jurors were improperly dismissed from service based on their race. The high court has said it will decide those cases before weighing in on a proposal that would modify a criminal jury selection rule to make it harder to exclude people of color from juries using peremptory challenges.

Owens' attorneys declined to comment on that proposed rule change Tuesday.

Owens is represented by Mark G. Walta of Walta LLC, Todd E. Mair of Mair Law LLC and Jonathan D. Reppucci of the Reppucci Law Firm PC.

The state is represented by Colorado Attorney General Philip J. Weiser and Katharine Gillespie and John T. Lee of that office.

The case is People v. Sir Mario Owens, case number 2008SA402, in the Colorado Supreme Court.

--Additional reporting by Andrew Strickler. Editing by Kelly Duncan.

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