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Jones v. Rockford Memorial Hospital

September 14, 2000


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County. No. 95--L--194 Honorable J. Edward Prochaska, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McLAREN

Plaintiff, Brenda Jones, appeals from orders of the trial court granting judgment in favor of defendants, Rockford Memorial Hospital (Rockford) and Dennis F. Fancsali, M.D., and denying plaintiff's posttrial motions. This appeal does not involve defendant Fancsali. We affirm.

Brenda Jones, as administrator of the estate of Chester Bailey, brought suit against Rockford Memorial Hospital and Dr. Dennis Fancsali, alleging multiple counts of wrongful death and expenses to the estate. Following a jury trial, the court entered judgment against Jones and in favor of Rockford and Fancsali on all counts. Jones's posttrial motion was denied. This appeal followed.

Jones's only contention on appeal is that the trial court erred when it allowed Rockford to exclude an African-American venireman from the jury. According to Jones, Rockford was motivated by a discriminatory animus when it peremptorily excused Norman Pickett as an alternate juror.

Early in his questioning of Mr. Pickett, counsel for Rockford stated, "Brenda Jones obviously is black. She's right there." Jones's counsel asked to approach the bench and objected "to any inquiry from [sic] a prospective juror on the subject of racial prejudice." Following argument, the court overruled the objection and allowed "very, very limited" questioning on the point. Rockford's counsel then concluded his questioning of Pickett as follows:

"Q. Mr. Pickett, I'm going to make sure that you can be fair to me; and the reason I'm asking this question is Brenda Jones is black. You are going to hear testimony from three other black witnesses; and the question I have got is: Do you think that in any -- that the fact that you are going to see black witnesses in here is going to handicap me and prevent me from getting a fair trial because of you, because you are focusing in on just that fact?

A. You will get a fair trial.

Q. I will get a fair trial?

A. Yeah.

Q. Okay."

Rockford then exercised a peremptory challenge to dismiss Pickett. Jones objected, and Rockford was required to present a race-neutral explanation for the dismissal. Rockford responded as follows:

"MR. McWILLIAMS: Just for a little background, Judge. We tried a case a couple of weeks ago, and there was a black juror on there that I did not strike. I do not routinely strike black jurors. I have never been accused of that in 25 years of practicing. Now, Mr. Pickett, once I started inquiry, suddenly I sensed through body language -- if you noticed, when I started asking some questions, he suddenly crossed both arms in front of his chest (indicating); and I construed that as an act of defiance and challenge.

When I asked him whether or not he could be fair, he flippantly -- he said something to the effect, 'Yes, I can be really fair.' I sensed that he was being sarcastic about that; and, frankly, I don't need that type of juror in this kind of situation where I am, in fact, sensing some antagonism between he and I that I'm afraid that may be carried throughout the rest of the case. I might add that his particular position, I think he's a maintenance man at RHA. He's a repairman, maintenance man. Chester Bailey was an older foundry worker. Frankly, I am concerned that there would be some type of identification with Chester Bailey's situation with Mr. Pickett. I do not routinely and have never routinely exercised preempts against blacks, period."

The United States Supreme Court has held that purposeful racial discrimination in the selection of jurors is unconstitutional. See Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 87, 90 L. Ed. 2d 69, 81, 106 S. Ct. 1712, 1718 (1986). This is true in both criminal and civil cases. See Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co., 500 U.S. 614, 630, 114 L. Ed. 2d 660, 680, 111 S. Ct. 2077, 2088 (1991). There exists a three-step process for evaluating claims of racial discrimination in jury selection. First, the complaining party must make a prima facie showing that the opposing party has exercised peremptory challenges on the basis of race; second, if the initial burden has been met, the burden shifts to the opposition to articulate a race-neutral explanation ...

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