Louisville legislator wants state to study racial demographics of Kentucky juries
Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, prefiled a bill Friday asking legislative staff to study the racial demographics of Kentucky’s criminal juries
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In the meeting Friday that settled the public standoff between Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens and Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine, both agreed more work needs to be done to ensure that juries are more racially balanced.
And a legislator from Louisville has taken a step to push the issue on a state-wide level.
Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, prefiled a bill Friday asking legislative staff to study the racial demographics of Kentucky’s criminal juries and share the results with lawmakers by Nov. 1, 2016.
The bill, BR 885, would call for a statistical analysis that would identify the race of citizens who receive a jury summons in all Kentucky counties, show up for jury duty and serve as a juror, among other measures. Staffers would study statistics from 2015.
The U.S. Supreme Court has found that a defendant’s rights are violated when jurors of their race have been “purposely excluded,” Meeks's bill notes.
Meeks, a former Louisville Alderman who has served in the Kentucky House since 2001, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Similar studies have already been done in Louisville, showing that blacks were underrepresented on juries.
A Courier-Journal series in 2005 found that residents who live in low-income, mostly black areas are less likely to sit on Jefferson County juries.
Following that series, the Racial Fairness Commission – including local judges, attorneys and activists – came to the same conclusion after studying whether blacks were being unfairly excluded from Jefferson County juries.
The reasons for the imbalance weren’t exactly clear, but the commission found some possible causes, including faulty jury summons lists that result in a small response rate, and low jury pay combined with some employers not paying workers during their service, making it impossible for some people to serve.
“The jury pool is not reflective of the community," Raoul Cunningham, Louisville NAACP president and a member of the commission, told the newspaper in 2007. "... You are not being judged by a jury of your peers."
Since then, the commission has been tracking the race of citizens who show up for jury duty.
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.
But the issue has for the most part been been out of mind until recent months, when Stevens accused Wine in Facebook posts of wanting “all-white” juries.
Stevens’ Facebook postings came after a WDRB story in October 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.
In October, Stevens halted a drug trial and dismissed the entire jury panel, asking for a new group to be installed because the potential jurors were "not representative of the community."
Last November, after a 13-member jury chosen for a theft trial ended up with no black jurors, Stevens said he found it “troublesome” and dismissed the panel at the request of a defense attorney.
“There is not a single African-American on this jury and (the defendant) is an African-American man,” Stevens said, according to a video of the trial. “I cannot in good conscience go forward with this jury.”
Wine requested Chief Justice John Minton to remove Stevens from all of his criminal cases, arguing he had shown he was unable to be impartial to prosecutors since he insinuated Wine was racist and wanted "all-white juries."
Minton ordered the two to go to mediation, where each acknowledged the other was not a racist and Stevens clarified his Facebook posts weren't meant to be personal.
And both men – who are members of the Racial Fairness Commission – agreed that more needed to be done to ensure juries were more racially balanced.
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