Swain v. Alabama: Case & Summary

Instructor: Tisha Collins Batis

Tisha is a licensed real estate agent in Texas. She holds bachelor's in legal studies and a master's degree in criminal justice.

In this lesson, the case of Swain v. Alabama will be discussed and summarized. Upon completion, the reader should have a good grasp of the proceedings of this case as well as the impact it had in the criminal justice system.

Swain v. Alabama

In May of 2017, a defendant stood trial on murder charges. The defendant was of a minority race. During the initial jury selection, the prosecuting attorney struck three jurors from the jury pool. These three jurors happened to be of the same minority race as the defendant. They also were the only three potential jurors of that minority race in the jury pool. Is this legal? Will the defendant be able to get a fair trial, heard before a jury of the defendant's peers? In 1965, the answer would have been yes and in 1986, the answer would have been no. What changed in a little over twenty years?

The case of Swain v. Alabama was heard by the United States Supreme Court in 1965. Robert Swain, the defendant, had been found guilty of raping a White woman in Alabama and had been sentenced to death. Swain was Black. The initial trial took place in the Circuit Court of Talladega County, Alabama. During the jury selection, the only Black men in the jury pool of one hundred were either exempt (two jurors) or struck from the jury by peremptory challenge (six jurors). A peremptory challenge is the tool an attorney may use wherein a juror can be struck from the jury for no reason.

Swain appealed his conviction, asserting that he did not get a fair trial because there were no Black jurors on his jury. Initially, the case went to the Alabama Supreme Court, where his conviction was affirmed. Swain then appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately for Swain, he lost his appeal there in a 6-3 vote.

The Court found that there were Black jurors on the panel and that there was nothing to indicate that the potential jurors who were struck were actually struck from the jury due to their race. Specific points made by the justices in this case were that the imperfection of the jury selection process itself did not prove that racial discrimination was taking place purposely. Additionally, the striking of members of one race using peremptory challenges does not result in the violation of a defendant's equal protection of the laws.

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Batson v. Kentucky

The case of Batson v. Kentucky took place over twenty years after Swain. In this case, James Batson faced charges of burglary and receipt of stolen goods. During the jury selection, the prosecuting attorney struck four African American jurors from the jury pool. They were the only African American jurors in that particular jury pool. The prosecuting attorney used his peremptory challenges to do so. Batson was convicted. He appealed his conviction, claiming that his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws had been violated. The Supreme Court of Kentucky affirmed Batson's convictions and he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

When this case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, the outcome was quite different from that of Swain. The justices voted, in a 7-2 vote, that Batson's Fourteenth Amendment rights had actually been violated. They held that even though Batson was not automatically entitled to a jury that included members of his own race, the peremptory challenges available to attorneys could not be used to exclude potential jurors due to their race. Essentially, the practice of using peremptory challenges to strike jurors of particular races from a jury pool was ended.

U.S. Supreme Court
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