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State v. Watkins

Decided: March 7, 1989.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, and Stein. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J.


[114 NJ Page 260] At a trial conducted in May 1986, defendant, Ledora Watkins, an eighteen-year-old black woman, was convicted of murder by an all-white jury, and was sentenced to thirty years in State Prison without parole. In an unreported opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed, with one judge dissenting on the issue whether defendant had made a prima facie showing that the prosecutor had improperly exercised his peremptory challenges to exclude all blacks from the jury. The matter is before us as a matter of right. R. 2:2-1(a)(2). We remand it to the Law

Division for a hearing on the propriety of the exercise of the prosecutor's challenges.


Defendant was convicted of a murder arising out of a drug-related incident in which she stabbed the victim, an Hispanic male, fifty-two times. The jury rejected her claim of self-defense, and even the dissenting judge in the Appellate Division found the evidence of her guilt to be "overwhelming." The essential issue before us is whether the prosecutor's exercise of his peremptory challenges violated the "defendant's constitutional right to trial by an impartial jury drawn from a representative cross-section of the community." See State v. Gilmore, 103 N.J. 508, 517 (1986).

The trial was conducted in Burlington County, which, according to the prosecutor, had at that time a black population of approximately ten percent. See Bureau of the Census, U.S. Dep't Comm., 1980 Census of the Population, vol. 1, ch. B, pt. 32, N.J. 22 (1981) (estimating black population of Burlington County at approximately 12.5 percent). Although the record does not disclose how many blacks were included in the jury array, the number apparently was quite low. Defendant, however, has not challenged the array, from which four blacks were called to serve as prospective jurors. One was excused for cause because he was a Jehovah's Witness who believed he could not sit in judgment of his fellow man. The prosecutor peremptorily excused the other three. Altogether the prosecutor exercised nine of his twelve peremptory challenges, R. 1:8-3(d), removing a total of five women, three white and two black, as well as four men, three white and one black. Defense counsel exercised all twenty of his challenges, and contends that he did so in a futile attempt to obtain black representation on the jury.

Consistent with Rule 1:8-3(a), the court conducted the voir dire of the prospective jurors. The first black juror excused by

the prosecutor was Mrs. Edith Bass, whose husband had been employed for eighteen years as a mediator by the Public Advocate. After the prosecutor excused her, defense counsel moved for a mistrial because she was the only black on the panel. The prosecutor declined to give a reason for excusing the juror, but stated the reason was not her race. The trial court denied the motion, finding that defendant had not made a prima facie case of a constitutionally impermissible challenge.

After the first panel of jurors was exhausted, the court called a new panel, which included two blacks, Mr. Richard Obannion and Mrs. Marie Williams. Mr. Obannion was an aircraft-engine mechanic who worked for the Naval Propulsion Center at Trenton. He and his wife, who was employed as a bank teller, had a thirteen-year-old son. The prosecutor, who by this time had challenged five prospective jurors, including Mrs. Bass, excused Mr. Obannion. In the face of another defense motion for a mistrial, the prosecutor again declined to explain the reason for the challenge and, as before, merely asserted that race was not a factor. The trial court denied the motion.

The last black left on the panel was Mrs. Williams, a social worker with the Division of Youth and Family Services. Her husband was an electrician at McGuire Air Force Base, and they had two adult children. During a recess, while the voir dire was in process, the prosecutor saw Mrs. Williams, who formerly had been a probation worker, talking with some people present in court. The prosecutor thought the people were friends of the defendant, but the juror explained to the court she had been talking with court employees. After the prosecutor excused ...

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