Activists meet with Tom Wine, ask him to rescind motion to remove Judge Olu Stevens
Commonwealth's Attorney says he will not rescind motion but will continue to explain his position to public
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A group supporting Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens met with Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine Monday, asking him to rescind his request to have Stevens removed from criminal cases for alleged bias.
While Wine declined, both sides met civilly -- though there were some contentious moments -- for about an hour, discussing the issue of race in the court system and why Wine wanted Stevens recused from criminal cases.
About eight activists had protested outside Wine’s office Monday morning, eventually asking to speak with him. Wine agreed to talk with three of the protestors at 1 p.m. -- the media was allowed to sit in on the meeting.
“Do you support all white juries?” Gary Brice asked Wine during the meeting.
“Absolutely not,” Wine responded, saying he just wanted the Kentucky Supreme Court to determine whether a judge has the authority to dismiss juries based on the racial make-up.
So why is Wine fighting with a judge who was trying to ensure that the make-up of juries reflect that of society, the group asked.
“We just want to know, ‘what are the rules?’” Wine told activists. “If the Kentucky Supreme Court says that a judge at any time can set aside a properly empaneled jury because of its racial make-up,” we will follow the rule.
After Stevens dismissed a 13-member jury because it ended up with no black jurors last year, Wine’s office asked the Supreme Court to look at the issue and see if Stevens has the authority to dismiss jury panels because of a lack of minorities. The high court has agreed to hear arguments.
Wine pointed out that did not ask Chief Justice John Minton to remove Stevens from criminal cases because the judge had tried to get a more racially balanced jury, but because of his Facebook postings about Wine and his office.
The protesters were also upset, in part, that Wine was asking Minton to remove Stevens because of the judge’s Facebook postings.
“Louisville does not have enough black judges,” April Taylor told Wine. “How are you going to remove a black judge from hearing any criminal cases over one (Facebook) comment? He has a right to free speech in America.”
Wine was also asked whether he believed in the right to free speech.
“I do, but I also believe there are restrictions and when you become a judge … there are rules that govern that freedom of speech and all judges accept that,” Wine said.
Minton is expected to rule sometime this week.
Prosecutors have asked Stevens to recuse himself from criminal cases that came before him, claiming his Facebook posts about Wine proved he could not be impartial.
Earlier this month, Minton removed Stevens from two cases after the judge had refused similar requests to step aside. Minton ruled prosecutors had "demonstrated disqualifying circumstances that require the appointment of a special judge."
If Stevens is recused from presiding over criminal cases, it is likely he would continue to handle civil suits while other judges took over his criminal docket.
Minton is expected to rule sometime this week.
A secretary for Stevens has said he does not grant interviews. Stevens did not respond to an email seeking comment last week.
Stevens’ Facebook postings came after a WDRB story last month reporting that Wine had asked the state Supreme Court to determine whether the judge was abusing his power by dismissing a jury because he felt it was lacking enough black people.
Stevens has written on Facebook that Wine was going to the Kentucky Supreme Court to “protect the right to impanel all-white juries” and that “is not what we need to be in 2015. Do not sit silently. Stand up. Speak up.”
Minorities long have been being underrepresented on local juries. Several black defendants have complained over the years that they were convicted by an all-white jury - not of their peers.
The Racial Fairness commission -- a group made up of local judges, lawyers and citizens -- has studied the issue for years, monitored the make-up of jury panels and found them consistently lacking in minorities.
For example, in October, 14 percent of potential jurors were black, far below the estimated 21 percent for all residents of Jefferson County, according to records kept by the commission. In September, 13 percent of potential Jefferson County jurors were black.
After the meeting, Wine said he was “not afraid to sit down and talk with people if they want to sit down and talk about those issues. I welcome a fair and reasoned exchange with people.”
The group thanked Wine for meeting with them and said they would schedule another time to meet with him soon.
Chanele Helm, one of the activist, told reporters after the meeting that "it went well and we agreed to have more meetings.
"At the end of the day, the real issue is that our juries are not diversified and...that the entire judicial system is guilty itself for not diversifying those jury pools," Helm said.
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