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Jury Dismissal on Racial Grounds

The following post is part of our Law Student Blog Writing Project, and is authored by James Haney, a Juris Doctor student at NKU Chase College of Law, Northern Kentucky University.

Jury Dismissal on Racial Grounds

The Constitutional Implications of Judge Olu Stevens’s Jury Dismissal

To say the least, race has come back to the forefront of the collective American mind. Racial division is rampant in the media, especially the news. Strife sells. In Louisville, Kentucky, race has placed itself at the core of a current case being heard by the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Judge Olu Stevens dismissed a jury panel, citing a lack of racial diversity as the reason for wiping clean the pool. The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office then appealed the decision, which is now up for review. There is, no doubt, a constitutional issue to be raised.

In order to better understand the case, both the history of the case, the Constitution, and some Kentucky law needs to be examined.

The case in question involves one Charles Evans Jr. Evans was arrested and convicted of robbery and assault. When a jury is involved, the jury must first be selected. In this case, forty-one (41) members of the community were selected, at random, to be a part of the jury selection pool. Of those, three (3) were black.

This is where a major contention comes in from Judge Stevens. The fifth (5th) amendment to the United States Constitution provides that no civilian shall be denied due process. That is to say, anyone not in the military has a legal right to civilian court proceedings, before the state may deprive such a person of their life, liberty, or property. The sixth (6th) amendment, then, goes on to speak to criminal prosecutions. Accordingly, “the accused shall enjoy the right to a…public trial, by an impartial jury…” This is where the idea of a jury of one’s own peers comes form. The idea being that, because the United States is an amalgamation of cultures, peoples, beliefs, etc., then a jury should represent that same diversity. Judge Stevens’s dismissal of the jury pool is grounded in this part of the Bill of Rights. In his eyes, it seems, three (3) out of forty-one (41) is not an accurate cross-section of the people of Louisville.

The Constitution of Kentucky provides that no person has a right to a jury of any particular composition, merely that there may be no systematic exclusion, resulting in a reasonably representative jury. This is how the 6th Amendment of the United States Constitution has been interpreted, as well.

Since the dismissal, Judge Allison Jones, an Appeals judge in Kentucky, has ruled that Evans’s case will not be heard until the Court of Appeals has the opportunity to determine whether or not Stevens’s assertion was valid. This makes sense, as an appeal based on lack of racial diversity of the jury would be a virtual certainty, regardless.

Interestingly, though not necessarily relevant to the 6th amendment claim by Judge Stevens, a 1st amendment complaint has been raised by the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. Judge Stevens placed a gag order on the prosecution and defense, forbidding either side from speaking about the proceedings. The order has been deemed improper by an undisclosed First Amendment attorney. This is, of course, only the person’s opinion, and not representative of any official stance being taken by the state, as of yet.

According to the prosecution, there is no evidence of any purposeful discrimination. It is worth noting that this is not the first time Judge Stevens and this Commonwealth’s Office have crossed paths. The Supreme Court of Kentucky has agreed to hear allegations that the judge was abusing his power, dismissing juries because he deemed them not inclusive enough. In November of 2015, Judge Stevens dismissed a jury for a theft case, citing that he found it “troublesome” that there were no black members of the 13-person jury. In this case, too, the defendant was black. Stevens is also facing six (6) charges of misconduct, stemming from the same ongoing feud between the judge and the commonwealth attorney. The hearings are scheduled for April 19.

Castaneda v. Partida, a Texas case that made its way to the US Supreme Court, deals with a similar situation, but farther down the line in the legal proceedings. On the petition of the state to be heard by the Supreme Court, it was noted that, although Mexican-Americans comprised roughly 79% of the population in which the jury pool was draw from, in an eleven (11) year period, only 39% of potential jurors had been Mexican-American. From this case, it can be seen where Judge Stevens might have a legitimate grievance. Were this case the only authority, it would likely boil down to previous jury selections as compared to the general population of the county. However, this is only a single case, and would likely be used only in the same capacity in which it is used here: as an example. A single example does not an argument make.

It is my belief that the appeal made by the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office will fail or succeed based on previous jury pools. If it can be shown, such as in Castaneda, that there is a history of disproportionality, then the dismissal will likely stand. However, if no such trend appears, then such cases will be seen as anomalies, rather than the norm. According to the US Census taken in July 2015, the population of Jefferson County is around 760,000. The most recent racial data comes from one year prior, in 2014, and places the white population at about 73%, and the black population at about 21%. Judging purely on those numbers, which is admittedly an oversimplification of a much more nuanced dispersion, then about one of every four jury members would be black. Clearly, in the case of this discussion, such is not the case. Again, it will almost certainly come down to what patterns are shown to occur. If such disparity happens often enough that the Court of Appeals deems it alarming, then not only will the dismissal stand, but there may well be an investigation opened. However, if no pattern of discrimination reveals itself, Judge Stevens may be asked to take a leave of absence.

Such a case is sure to have lasting effects on the criminal law system of Kentucky, and, quite possibly, on the rest of the country. Race based cases tend to find their way into the annals of nationally recognized law. This is very much an ongoing case. Something of this level of importance is destined to be heard in more than one appeal. Currently, there simply is not enough information available to the public at large in order to form an informed opinion as to the legitimacy of Judge Stevens’s claim, or to the claim of the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office of Jefferson County. Right now, it is anyone’s game, so to speak, with clarity coming through further revelation of facts.