Was judge right to dismiss jury due to lack of black members? Top state court to decide

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For years, a commission in Jefferson County, Kentucky, has been monitoring the number of blacks on juries, which is consistently lower than their representation in the county’s general population.

“It’s a problem,” said state Court of Appeals Judge Denise Clayton, who heads the Racial Fairness commission, composed of local judges, attorneys and citizens. For example, while an estimated 21 percent of the county’s residents are black, in September and October only 13-14 percent of the jury pool have been African-American. “We are not hitting that representation.”

But an individual trial court judge has at least arguably found a partial solution to the problem, simply dismissing juries that entirely–or almost entirely–lack blacks, reports WDRB.

Over objections from both prosecution and defense lawyers, Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens stopped a trial last week and dismissed a jury panel, calling for a new group so that jury selection could begin again. “The concern is that the panel is not representative of the community,” he said at the time, although he declined further comment when contacted by the station.

It appears from the WDRB article that the panel started with 37 whites and only 3 blacks, 2 of whom had been eliminated at the time Stevens took action.

In November of last year, he dismissed a 13-member jury in a theft case, at the request of the defense, because there were no black jurors. “There is not a single African-American on this jury and (the defendant) is an African-American man,” Stevens is quoted by WDRB as saying. “I cannot in good conscience go forward with this jury.”

That case sparked protest by the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office and state attorney general, who asked the state supreme court to determine whether Stevens has the power to do this. Last month, the court agreed to hear the case.

Commonwealth Attorney Tom Vine declined to comment on the most recent dismissal of the jury panel. However, assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Dorislee Gilbert argued in a petition to the state supreme court concerning the November 2014 case that their was no proof a lack of blacks would prevent the jury from being fair and impartial.

She also argued that judges “may feel societal, political, and other pressures” to strike juries that are not racially diverse.

Stevens acted “based on nothing more than unsupported fear or impression that the jury might not be fair because of its racial makeup,” Gilbert wrote. “There was no consideration of whether the commonwealth or the citizens who had sacrificed of their own lives to make themselves available for jury service had any rights or interests in continuing to trial with the jury as selected.”

Hat tip: Above the Law

Updated at 12:58 p.m. to correct the spelling in a quote.

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