LEWISTON — Maine’s highest court ruled Tuesday that an Androscoggin County prosecutor did not discriminate against a black man when she rejected the only person of color from a jury that later found the man guilty of two felonies.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld Malik Hollis’ convictions — by an all-white jury — for reckless conduct and criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon.
Defense attorney James Howaniec said he intends to appeal the decision to the federal court.
“This is a sad day for the rights of minority residents in Maine,” Howaniec said Tuesday.
Pointing out that Maine’s population is one of the whitest in the nation, Howaniec said, “The Maine Supreme Court has basically said that prosecutors can exclude the lone black juror in a room filled with 100 white jurors in a case involving an African-American defendant, for the most tenuous of reasons.”
During jury selection for Hollis’ trial in July 2017, Assistant District Attorney Katherine Bozeman used a peremptory challenge to exclude Juror 71 — whom the court described as a “person of color.” Peremptory means she did not have to give a reason for rejecting him.
Howaniec objected to the potential juror’s removal, and Bozeman said his “ethnicity has no bearing in regard to why I struck him. I was looking for his level of education and other various factors that were provided in the list from the court.”
On Tuesday, District Attorney Andrew Robinson praised Bozeman as “an incredibly intelligent, hardworking and ethical prosecutor who believes in justice. ADA Bozeman’s jury selection decision was not (and never would be) based upon the juror’s race.”
The person who was stricken was among a pool of 32 prospective jurors and had the lowest education level among the group.
Howaniec argued that no effort was made to determine the man’s intelligence during jury selection. He said Tuesday that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court “is apparently saying that Juror 71, who was an African-American cook, was not intelligent enough to serve on an Androscoggin County jury, even though the prosecutor excluded three jurors with college-level educations.”
In a separate appeal for a new trial heard last September, Howaniec said, “There is absolutely no other evidence on the record that the state similarly challenged white jurors because of education level.”
Tuesday’s decision, he said, “calls into serious question the fundamental fairness of a court system in Maine that has grown increasingly hostile to the basic rights of defendants, especially minority defendants.”
Robinson said Tuesday’s ruling supported Bozeman’s consistent stand that her decision to strike the juror had nothing to do with race. And, “after looking at the evidence, the trial court judge found this to be true and now Maine’s highest court has also found this to be true,” he said.
“The facts are clear,” Robinson said. “The defendant received a fair trial, he presented his self-defense argument which was rejected by the jury, and he was found guilty of having fired a gun during an altercation in Lewiston.”
Hollis was arrested May 21, 2016, after clashing with several white men outside an apartment building on College Street in Lewiston.
According to court records, Hollis testified that he was confronted by three men, each carrying a weapon of some sort, and that he “decided to retrieve his handgun after the men swore at him, chased him and threatened to kill him.”
During the trial, one of those men confirmed Hollis’ account and acknowledged that he hit Hollis with a metal handlebar, called Hollis the “n” word and threatened to kill him.
According to court records, that man “also testified that one of the other men on his side had an aluminum baseball bat and another had a baton.”
None of the three was charged with any crime.
After Hollis was threatened, he “ran around the corner to his apartment and returned with a handgun. Upon returning outside and seeing the men,” Hollis fired his gun in their direction into a dirt pile on the ground, according to court records.
He was later arrested outside his apartment, where he was found hiding under a deflated air mattress that was lying in a third-floor hallway. The gun was found under a raised floorboard in the same building.
When Hollis went to trial in July last year, he testified that he had not intended to hit anybody, only to scare them, arguing self-defense.
The jury found him guilty of both charges, and he was later sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to forfeit his gun.
Hollis filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that striking the sole person of color from the jury “violated the principles of equal protection and due process.” The court denied that request.
While the Constitution forbids striking prospective jurors because of discrimination, and there is case law barring discriminatory jury selection, the court ruled that in this case the prosecutor was not motivated by race in rejecting Juror 71.
In Tuesday’s decision upholding Hollis’ conviction, the law court noted that “it appears that the State’s jury selection strategy favored jurors with more education,” notably because a self-defense claim is complex and that higher levels of education are a reasonable standard for jury selection.”
Robinson said, “We are proud of ADA Bozeman’s work and our community is safer because of it.”
In making his argument for a new trial last year, Howaniec had noted that six of the white jurors empanelled for trial had 12th-grade educations, and that no effort was made by Bozeman to determine whether the rejected juror lacked the necessary intellect to follow legal procedure and to be able to apply the law.
Howaniec also said a person’s education level is not necessarily a reflection of intelligence or reasoning ability, making the point that Juror 71’s intelligence could have been examined during jury selection.
In addition to her concerns about his education level, Bozeman said she had formed a negative impression of Juror 71 during an earlier jury selection for a different criminal case and had carried that impression with her into the Hollis jury selection.
Specifically, Juror 71 had said he had witnessed domestic violence involving a child and his grandmother, and that his demeanor appeared “nonchalant” while offering that information to the court.
After Superior Court Justice William Stokes ruled against his client’s request for a new trial last October, Howaniec said: “We need to find out why less than one percent of our jury pools in Androscoggin County are comprised of non-Caucasians. … It is pretty sad when you have a black defendant and everyone else in the room is white. And it is troubling when the one black juror in the room is excluded by the prosecutor.”
In this September 2017 file photo, Malik Hollis seeks a new trial in Androscoggin County Superior Court with attorney James Howaniec. On Tuesday, in a separate appeal, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld Hollis’ felony convictions for reckless conduct and criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon. (Sun Journal file photo)