Appeals Court halts trial in which judge dismissed jury based on race
Appeals Court also said Judge Olu Stevens did not have good reason to seal video of criminal trial
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A Kentucky Court of Appeals judge has halted a trial in which Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens attempted to dismiss a jury panel he felt was not representative of the community.
Appeals Judge Allison Jones ruled Thursday that Charles Evans’ robbery and assault trial would be postponed until the court of appeals could hear arguments about whether Stevens had shown that the requirement for a “fair cross-section of the community” had been violated.
Judge Jones also ruled that Stevens showed no reason why the record in the case should be sealed and kept from public view.
Stevens had sealed the first day of the criminal trial and issued a gag order forbidding prosecutors and defense attorneys from talking about the proceedings - a move deemed "100 percent improper" by a First Amendment attorney.
Jones did not order Stevens to unseal the case, but the closed hearing is now available for review at the court of appeals in Frankfort.
Jefferson County Jury Administrator Janet Irwin and Appeals Court Judge Denise Clayton, head of the Racial Fairness Commission, both testified during the hearing, according to the video.
Stevens told prosecutors and defense attorneys he was issuing a gag order to keep his courtroom from becoming a "media circus."
"My expectation is there is not going to be any cameras in here," Stevens told the attorneys, according to a video of the hearing obtained by WDRB.
Prosecutors told Stevens they would not talk to the media but could not ensure that the news didn't leak out from someone else.
"It sounds like you are making excuses for it (to happen)," Stevens said. "It hasn't happened and it's not going to happen. He told prosecutors the entire Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney's Office was under a gag order.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys declined to comment on Thursday, saying they were unsure if they were allowed to talk about the case because of the gag order. Stevens had agreed to dismiss the jury at the request of defense attorneys given that it was not representative of the community, with only three black citizens in a panel of more than 40 people.
WDRB filed a motion Thursday asking Stevens to unseal the record in the Evans case, arguing the judge’s ruling violates the First Amendment and that he gave no reason given for making the case confidential. The judge sealed six hours of testimony.
Stevens did not hear arguments from Tim Napier, an attorney for WDRB. A deputy in Stevens’ courtroom said the judge was not hearing any more cases on Thursday.
Jon Fleischaker, one of the state’s most experienced media lawyers, said on Wednesday that Stevens’ decision to seal the case and issue a gag order is “totally 100 percent improper.”
After Stevens released the jury panel Thursday, prosecutors went to Chief Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Charlie Cunningham to try and keep them until a ruling is made. Cunningham has not yet ruled.
Stevens has criticized Wine and his office repeatedly 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. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the issue.
The state Judicial Conduct Commission is investigating Stevens, in part, for insinuating on Facebook that Wine is racist and wanted "all-white juries."
Stevens has refused to recuse himself in criminal cases, though Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton has removed him a handful of times.
But Minton denied a request to disqualify Stevens from all criminal cases, saying it was way beyond the scope of his responsibility and, if granted, would essentially amount to removing Stevens from the bench.
Minton has harshly criticized Stevens but referred the request to the Judicial Conduct Commission for possible disciplinary action.
It is unknown when the commission will rule on whether Stevens has violated the code of judicial conduct.
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