Kentucky Supreme Court rules judges can't dismiss jury based on - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Kentucky Supreme Court rules judges can't dismiss jury based on race

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In a historic decision, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday that judges cannot dismiss juries because of their racial makeup, finding it would "reintroduce the purposeful selection of jurors on account of race" decades after that was outlawed.

The high court ruled that Jefferson Circuit Judge Olu Stevens' decision to throw out a jury because it didn't represent a cross-section of the community in 2014 was an "abuse of discretion."

Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Wine had asked the Supreme Court whether Stevens had the authority to dismiss a jury based on the lack of black members. The high court heard arguments from both sides in June.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court found the defendant in the case before Stevens, James Doss, does not have the "constitutional right to a … jury that included an African-American or even one that reflected the racial or ethnic makeup of his community." He has the right to have a jury selected from a "fair cross section of the community."

Jury panels are selected by random lists by "an indifferent and color-blind" computer using voter registrations, driver' licenses and tax returns. 

While other methods might be more effective in finding a broader scope of citizens, no one in the Doss case cited any specific deficiencies in Kentucky's current jury selection, according to the Supreme Court. 

Allowing a judge to use his or her discretion to select a jury "is short-sighted and would be short-lived," the high court rule in a unanimous decision. 

"Different judges will have different ideas on what constitutes a fairly composed jury," the justices ruled. "What personal characteristic of the parties, such as religion, ethnicity, gender, and national origin, should be selected to achieve a fairly composed jury?"

To side with Stevens would allow someone to be included or excluded from a jury trial based on race, the high court wrote.

"Outrage would be properly expressed if a trial judge said to a juror, 'You are excused because you are white and I need to get a black person on the jury;' or 'You are excused because we have enough African-Americans on this panel and I need to have an Asian.'"

This was deemed illegal three decades ago in a case from Louisville in which James Batson was convicted of theft after a prosecutor used his challenges to strike all four blacks from the jury. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such challenges could not be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race. 

Prosecutors must be able to offer a race-neutral reason for striking a juror.

Stevens did not return a phone message seeking comment. 

In a Nov. 18, 2014, theft case, Stevens dismissed a 13-member jury because it had no black jurors.

The judge 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."

The state Supreme Court said no one proved the jury in the theft case was drawn from a pool that did not reflect a fair cross section of the community - so the selection was proper. 

The decision to challenge Stevens' ruling was controversial in a community that has long contended that blacks were not properly represented on juries. And it became a national story after Stevens began speaking out, accusing Wine of trying to ensure "all-white juries."

Stevens was later suspended for 90 days, in part, for these comments.  For example, the judge wrote on Facebook last year 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."

Wine has said his office was not fighting for the right to seat all-white juries but to "preserve the right to juries selected in accordance with the law."

Below is a copy of the Kentucky Supreme Court ruling:

This story will be updated.

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