Judge didn't have discretion to dismiss jury panel for lack of diversity, top Kentucky court says

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Kentucky Supreme Court chambers

The Supreme Court chamber in the Kentucky State Capitol. Nagel Photography / Shutterstock.com

The Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled a trial judge in Louisville erred when he decided a black defendant was entitled to a jury with at least one African-American juror and dismissed the all-white jury panel.

The court overturned a November 2014 decision by Judge Olu Stevens of Jefferson Circuit Court in a theft case against James Doss, report the Associated Press and the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The initial panel of 41 prospective jurors had just one African-American member. After some potential jurors were removed for cause and lawyers used peremptory challenges to eliminate others, there were four too many remaining jurors. The court clerk randomly selected four jurors for dismissal, and one of them was the African-American. At that point, Stevens granted the defense motion to dismiss the jury because of its racial composition.

According to the state supreme court, Doss had no constitutional right to a jury that included a black member or even one that reflected the racial and ethnic makeup of his community. He did, however, have the right to a jury drawn from a pool of potential jurors that reflected a fair cross-section of the community, the court said in its unanimous Dec. 15 decision (PDF).

Prospective jurors in Kentucky are selected “by an indifferent and color-blind computer” from lists of registered voters, of those over 18 with valid driver’s licenses, and from state citizens who filed individual tax returns, the court said. Other sources of potential jurors might be tapped to broaden the scope of potential jurors, the court said, but the defendant doesn’t suggest any better method and doesn’t cite any specific deficiency in the current method.

Giving trial judges the discretion to cure perceived deficiencies in jury composition by discharging the panel “is short-sighted,” the state supreme court said. Different judges would have different standards, “discharging and replacing jury panels until a pleasing composition was attained. The advantage of random selection would be lost; successive random draws until the desired result is achieved is not random.”

Stevens had commented on Facebook when the prosecutor appealed his decision to dismiss the jury. Stevens wrote that the prosecutor was appealing “to protect the right to impanel all-white juries.” He agreed to a 90-day suspension for the comments in August and apologized for any statements that implied the prosecutor is racist.

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