By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Sacramento County may be practicing racial discrimination in the juror selection process – specifically, the African American community, charged a defense attorney in Sacramento County Superior Court here Tuesday afternoon.
And, the judge agreed – over the District Attorney’s Office objection – to grant a mid-trial continuance to give the defense lawyer time to prove it.
Veteran defense lawyers said they couldn’t recall such a request – let alone one that was granted. One attorney said “it’s about time” the jury selection process in Sacramento was examined.
It all started in a morning pre-jury selection hearing in the court of Judge Curtis Fiorini.
Oakland-based attorney Claire White – a University of California, Davis law school alum – demanded that a panel from which a jury would be chosen to hear her client’s case be dismissed because the “cross section” didn’t reflect the racial makeup of Sacramento County residents.
In fact, White said only two of 60 prospective jurors on the panel are African American, when about 11 percent of the county’s population in the last census were African American. That would have meant about six or seven of the jury panel should have been African American, she said.
Jaedon Evans, the client of White, is on trial with Preston Bouie, represented by Tom Clinkenbeard, for armed robbery at a Sacramento Denny’s restaurant last May.
White told the court that she spoke with the Sacramento County Jury Commissioner, and requested “demographic information of the venire (jury panel), specifically race demographics,” and also asked him to provide “the policies and procedures for juror selection in Sacramento County.”
However, according to White, the commissioner refused to provide any information without a written request, and without legal counsel.
White said she briefly researched, over the noon hour, U.S. census data for Sacramento County and found that the percentage of African Americans was 10.9 percent. She suggested that percentage would be higher today than nearly 10 years ago.
White admitted she must show that the group alleged to be excluded from the jury system is “distinctive” in the community. and then that the group from which juries are selected is “not fair and reasonable in relation to the number of such persons in the community…and this under-representation is due to systematic exclusion of the group in the jury-selection process.”
“It’s our position that, given that only two of the 60 potential jurors appear to the defense to be African American, which is drastically below 10.9 percent, good cause exists for the defense request,” said White.
Deputy District Attorney Heather Phillips objected, noting that there needed to be a “pattern” of African Americans not being chosen. She suggested the current jury panel’s lack of African Americans was just “random.”
“There needs to be a showing of under-representation as a pattern. There would need to be a showing the system in Sacramento County is flawed, which is what led to fewer African American potential jurors rather than pure chance,” maintained Phillips.
White said she would be “satisfied” if the court only dismissed the current panel and chose a new one “in the hope that the new venire (jury pool) is reflective of a fair cross section of the community, and that the disparity in this venire was simply the result of random computer generation or other isolated administrative issue.”
The judge, though, decided instead to give White time to more fully investigate the jury selection process in Sacramento County.
“I am going to excuse our current panel. I am treating this as a request from defense (to see) if there is systematic exclusion of a particular group,” said Judge Fiorini.
He then granted a continuance until Sept. 23 to reconvene the trial for both defendants after Clinkenbeard joined White’s jury challenge.
White has a history in Sacramento, even though she’s only been practicing law for about three years.
In her first jury trial two years ago, she pulled off what legal observers believed was a minor legal miracle when she convinced a jury not to convict a man who hit Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson with a pie as political theatre.
Sean Thompson admitted that he pushed a pie into Johnson’s face to protest a lack of assistance for the homeless population. Yet, White’s impassioned arguments resulted in a hung jury.