WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Wednesday considered whether it was proper to overturn the murder conviction of a woman after the state trial judge dismissed a juror who stood in the way of a guilty verdict against her.
Tara Sheneva Williams had been sentenced to life in prison in the 1993 murder of a Long Beach, California liquor store owner.
Prosecutors said she had driven two men to and from the store, where one of the men killed the owner, Hung Mun Kim, during the course of a robbery.
Williams challenged her conviction, contending that the trial judge had improperly removed Juror No. 6 from her jury because that juror was biased against the prosecution.
She turned to the federal courts after a California state court upheld the conviction, saying that court never addressed her claim that removing the juror violated her Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.
A federal appeals court in Pasadena, California, agreed with Williams in May 2011, saying the failure to address the claim meant that the state court’s decision did not deserve the usual “substantial deference.” It then concluded that the trial judge lacked good cause to remove the holdout juror.
Some Supreme Court justices on Wednesday suggested that a decision favoring Williams could prompt many new challenges to state court convictions.
“I can see a whole new train of litigation on this wonderful subject, a whole new area of law,” Justice Antonin Scalia said.
But Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said they were troubled by what occurred at the trial court.
“I just hope this doesn’t happen with much regularity,” Kennedy said. “The fact that the trial judge is upset, that’s the reason that you should leave the jury alone, it seems to me. I think it’s very troublesome.”
A decision is expected by June.
The case is Johnson v. Williams, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-465.
Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman