Disproportionality in the jury room

Three attorneys with King County’s Department of Public Defense are partnering with the Public Defender Association’s Racial Disparity Project to prove what they have seen over and over again in their work as felony public defenders: African-Americans are not only vastly under-represented on juries, they’re also under-represented in the jury pool.

Ben Goldsmith and Twyla Carter, both felony attorneys in DPD’s The Defender Association Division (TDAD), and Daron Morris, deputy division director, hope to collect enough data to put forward a compelling case to court administrators and others in the criminal justice system about the disproportionate composition of jury pools. “I believe what my eyes are telling me – that minorities are under-represented in the jury pool,” Goldsmith said. “But to make some meaningful changes, we need to collect some data.”

To obtain that data, Goldsmith and Carter have asked the 15 attorneys in TDAD’s felony unit to complete declarations after each jury selection they participate in and note the apparent race of potential jurors. They’re also asking supervisors of the felony units in DPD’s three other divisions to have their attorneys do the same, Goldsmith said.

Meanwhile, Anita Khandelwal, an attorney who supervises the Racial Disparity Project for the Public Defender Association (PDA), and Lisa Daugaard, PDA’s policy director, are working with the judges and administrators in King County Superior Court to conduct demographic surveys of potential jurors in the jury room. The two efforts – the declarations and surveys – should provide sufficient data to begin the hard work of addressing the problem, Goldsmith said.

“This is something that’s been happening for decades. And these sorts of things are hard to change,” Goldsmith said. “But everyone involved thinks that the changes we’re trying to make could move us toward something that’s morally right. And it helps if you have data that backs it up.”

The issue took on more meaning for Goldsmith last month after his client, Lovett Chambers, was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter for the death of a man in West Seattle in 2012. Chambers is African American; he shot the victim, a white man, after he and another white man shouted racial epithets at Chambers and came at him with a shovel. There were no African Americans on the jury that found Chambers guilty of manslaughter and only one African American in the jury pool, Goldsmith said.

“Lovett Chambers put a very human face on this. I think anybody who knew him or worked with him felt this was a grave injustice,” Goldsmith said.

The absence of African-Americans in the jury pool can have a huge impact on a case, according to a study by researchers at Duke University. The study, called “The Impact of Jury Race in Criminal Trials” and published in 2012, found that juries formed from all-white jury pools in Florida convicted black defendants 16 percent more often than white defendants, a gap that was nearly eliminated when at least one member of the pool was African-American.

Those involved with the effort have some ideas about how to address the problem. For instance, the county could expand the rolls from which potential jurors’ names are randomly selected. Right now, those names are pulled from lists of registered voters and valid driver’s licenses; a few states have broadened their reach by selecting names from public housing lists. Whatever the approach, Goldsmith said, it’s time the county address this issue.

“You can’t have a county with Martin Luther King’s logo if you don’t have jurors who represent our county’s diversity,” he said.

By Leslie Brown, Department of Public Defense.

The Seattle Weekly recently wrote about Goldsmith’s effort. Here’s a link to the story.

One thought on “Disproportionality in the jury room

  1. Having worked Court Security for King County since 2008 and on a weekly basis seeing the jury pool come into the courthouse I would have to say that the observations and questions raised are spot on.

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