Judge criticizes prosecution for criminal background checks of several black jurors

A Washington, D.C., Superior Court judge has called out prosecutors in a major gang case—concerning murder, conspiracy and assault—for their selection of which potential jurors get criminal background checks, a somewhat uncommon practice to begin with, the Washington Post reported.

Prosecutors initially told the judge they had researched criminal backgrounds of seven potential jurors, all of whom were black. Later, they told her they’d looked into 18 members of the jury pool, and 13 of them were black.

“The focus here is not on whether you had a right to do an investigation of jurors but whether it should be selective as to race,” Judge Lynn Leibovitz noted in court. She is a former D.C. prosecutor.

A senior counsel with the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund told the Post the prosecutors’ actions were “troubling.”

The Post checked with other prosecutors’ offices in the Washington Metro area, which includes Maryland and Virginia, and found that most don’t do criminal background checks on potential jurors. Nearby Arlington does it for all jurors after having seated a convicted felon on a jury some years ago.

Judge Liebovitz found there was no racial bias in the matter but advised prosecutors that choosing whom to check out is something “you ought to be giving thought to … in the future.”

Non-federal prosecutions in the unique governmental structure of Washington are handled by the U.S. attorney’s office. The office issued a statement decrying the “targeting of people based on race” and noted that it seldom does such criminal background checks. But the statement added that some potential jurors “failed to disclose convictions and arrests for offenses like carjacking, assault with a deadly weapon and handgun possession. On the basis of the information that had been withheld, the court excluded some of those individuals from serving on the jury.”

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