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Nevada murder conviction reversed over dismissal of black juror

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - Nevada's top court has overturned the murder conviction of a Las Vegas man sentenced to life in prison in the shooting death of his brother-in-law, ruling that a black woman with "Democratic views" was improperly dismissed from the jury pool.

As part of its ruling, the three-judge panel of the state Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a new trial for Jermaine Brass, 28, one of two brothers convicted in the slaying of their sister's husband, Ernest Mitchell, in 2009.

In an appeal of his 2010 conviction on murder, kidnapping and other charges, Brass, who is black, argued successfully that the trial judge improperly excused a prospective juror during jury selection.

Brass contended that the judge, Doug Smith, erred by failing to hold a hearing to determine whether prosecutors' objection to the juror, called a peremptory challenge, was racially motivated, as defense lawyers alleged, before he removed her.

She was the second African-American to be excluded from the jury pool by prosecutors' peremptory challenge, which normally can be exercised by either side without explanation, unless questioned by opposing counsel.

Smith ultimately conducted a hearing after the juror was dismissed and concluded that prosecutors had objected to her for "race-neutral" reasons.

But in writing for the majority, Nevada Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas said Smith's dismissal of the juror before a hearing on the matter had the same effect as a racially discriminatory challenge.

"This discriminatory jury selection constitutes structural error that was intrinsically harmful to the framework of the trial," Douglas wrote. He cited "our concern with the possibility that the dismissal of a prospective juror before (a hearing) may present the appearance of improper judicial bias."

Concurring with the majority, Justice Mark Gibbons wrote that one reason offered by prosecutors for striking the black juror "was that she is a registered Democrat who had 'Democratic' views on law enforcement."

"Political affiliation is not a proper component as a basis for asserting a challenge to a juror," Gibbons said.

Mitchell was shot to death three years ago after a confrontation over the theft of his newly purchased automobile tires and rims.

Brass's attorney, Christopher Oram, said the ruling meant his client was once again "innocent until proven guilty" and that he fully expected prosecutors to agree to a new trial.

But Steven Owens, chief deputy district attorney in Clark County, Nevada, said he was exploring whether to ask for a rehearing by the three-justice panel.

He said that purposeful discrimination was not proven in the dismissal of the black juror and that reversing a conviction for a relatively minor procedural error did not strike him as the proper remedy.

"It's certainly troubling to us," Owens said of the ruling.

Brass's brother and co-defendant, Ronnie Brass, died in March after being stabbed in the chest while in prison.

(Editing by Steve Gorman, Tim Gaynor and Peter Cooney)

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