D.C. Ruling Rejects Claim of Racial Disparity in Juries

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday upheld the legality of the District's jury system, rejecting arguments that blacks are much less likely to be called for service than whites even though the city is majority-African American.

Judge James E. Boasberg said that he found no evidence of a "systemic exclusion" of black jurors and that, if anything, they could be overrepresented in the pool of potential candidates summoned for service.

The ruling came after the most extensive examination of the D.C. jury system in decades. For years, the D.C. Public Defender Service had complained about racial disparity at the courthouse. In this case, as Boasberg wrote, he gave the agency "wide latitude" to pursue the claims over the past year.

The Public Defender Service waged the challenge in the case of Odell Powell, a black Northeast Washington resident arrested in 2006 on charges including assault on a police officer. The defense lawyers argued that the jury system was unconstitutional and sought to have Powell's indictment dismissed or his trial delayed until changes were made. The U.S. attorney's office and the District argued that the system is fair.

The public defenders and U.S. attorney's office recruited outside experts who looked into how the court determines its jury list and those who serve. The clerk of courts and others answered questions in depositions conducted by the defense team and provided data for a two-year period ending in November, all under orders issued by the judge.

The Public Defender Service presented the court with a startling statistic: In a city that was 60 percent black during that period, 36 percent of Superior Court jurors were black, it said.

With that, the judge could have ruled that the city's jury selection system violates the right to a jury representing a cross-section of the community. Such a decision could have opened the door for hundreds of defendant appeals.

But Boasberg found the defense's statistical analysis argument to be "wholly misleading." He gave more credence to a separate analysis, done for the U.S. attorney's office, that found a much closer match. The U.S. attorney's office said census figures show that blacks make up 56 percent of the city's adult population, calling that a more relevant figure because only adults can be jurors. And it concluded that black residents made up about 53 percent of the jurors who served in the two-year period.

The ratio of whites to blacks on D.C. juries has been a concern among many lawyers and even judges at Superior Court. Last year, Judge Neal E. Kravitz sided with defense attorneys in a criminal trial involving a black defendant and called for a new panel of jury prospects after 70 candidates -- 61 white, eight black and one Asian -- were sent to his courtroom.

Although Boasberg said the process is not perfect, he found no discrimination. He said the Public Defender Service failed to meet two tests required in such a challenge: that blacks are underrepresented and that it was due to "systemic exclusion."

"The data uncovered in this litigation conclusively prove that black jurors are not unconstitutionally underrepresented in Superior Court [lists] -- in fact, they are overrepresented in summonses issued -- and there is also no systematic exclusion of black jurors," Boasberg wrote in the ruling.

The Public Defender Service had also argued that the databases used by the court to identify jurors illegally exclude many blacks. Boasberg rejected that claim, saying that the District "has one of the most inclusive systems in the country."

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