Judges Respond to Concerns About Jury Pool Diversity
Sunday, July 15, 2007
D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz had never seen a jury pool quite like the one that walked into his courtroom for the trial of Donnie Ray Horne.
In a city that is nearly 60 percent black, the prospective jury for the sexual assault case against the black defendant was almost 90 percent white. It was the sort of pool that has been raising concerns among defense lawyers in the District, as the city's changing demographics bring white newcomers to a jury roll that has long struggled to reach some of the city's poorer residents.
Kravitz, a judge since 1998, had probably seen jury pools that didn't line up with the racial and economic shifts in the District. "But I have never had a panel in a criminal case that looked like this," he told the lawyers in the case. Then he did something rarely done in a D.C. court.
At the request of the defense lawyer and over prosecutors' objections, Kravitz sent back all 70 prospective jurors -- 61 white, eight black and one Asian -- and called for a new group.
The action in the spring was an assertion of judicial authority and added to a debate over how representative juries must be if they are to be seen as fair -- particularly amid the city's changing face. This month, a judge in another case opened the door to a broader challenge of how jury pools are crafted in the District.
Legally, a jury pool does not have to mirror the population, and, especially in urban areas, a number of factors have skewed the pools. Young black men in the District, for example, are more likely than young white men to have criminal records, which can make them ineligible for service. Poor people, who in the District are more likely to be black than white, may move frequently and be harder to summon.
But such factors do not appear to explain the changes in the past few years. Exactly what does, and how evolving demographics might play a role, are questions without answers, partly because of a lack of data.
Despite a growing awareness of the apparent disparities, it's impossible to ascertain an authoritative racial breakdown of the jury pool in Washington, because most people who are called for service do not answer the optional race question on the summons.
The potential jurors who show up at D.C. Superior Court many weekday mornings do not appear to represent a cross section of the community, as the Constitution requires, said Julia Leighton, general counsel of the D.C. Public Defender Service, which has been pushing for changes.
"There's a stark difference between what you see in the Superior Court's jury boxes and what you see on the residential streets of the District of Columbia," Leighton said. "We're hopeful that Judge Kravitz's decision signals a new willingness on the part of the Superior Court to analyze existing data and to collect new, more accurate data to identify problematic patterns."
In the District, about 80 percent of people arrested are black, D.C. police say. Nothing in the law requires that the jury pool match that. But experts said the makeup of juries can shape a community's perception of the justice system.
"You want justice not only to be done but to be seen to be done, by the public at large, by the minority population and by the individual defendant and witnesses," said Stephan Landsman, a law professor at DePaul University who wrote the American Bar Association's most recent set of principles for juries.