Anti-discrimination activists held a dinner at a Jefferson City church Thursday night to draw attention to what’s being referred to as racial dynamics in jury selection.
In a news release, organizers couched the gathering in the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, VA, noting patterns of racial discrimination are being looked at in many communities.
Patterns of racial discrimination in jury selection have been alleged by public defenders to have taken place in mid-Missouri’s Cole County where Jefferson City is situated. One case in the county circuit court was reversed by the Western District Appeals Court in Kansas City after it ruled prosecutors improperly cut a potential black juror from serving.
A 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision stated that race can’t be a factor in keeping someone on the jury, or striking them from the list of potential jurors.
The day after the appeals court ruling, Justin Carver, the Supervising Public Defender for Cole, Miller, and Moniteau counties wrote an open letter to Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson.
In it, Carver sighted five cases in which an African American was struck from serving. The defendants in four of the cases were African American while the defendant was Native American in the fifth. Carver says in the seven counties that he’s handled cases, the pattern of purging African Americans from juries where the defendant is African American has only occurred in Cole County.
“In my mind, there’s a very clear pattern,” said Carver. “They are treating potential jurors who are African American very differently than they are treating potential jurors who are Caucasian.”
Richardson was unavailable for comment for this story. His office said he was attending a conference of prosecutors.
Attorney Andrew Sartorius was the lead public defender on the case that was reversed by the appeals court. He calls the alleged practice of Cole County prosecutors one of the most brazen violations of someone’s due process rights that he’s seen.
“Certainly when I was trying this case, I did my best to try and address the racial tensions that existed, with Ferguson and everything,” Sartorius said. “But you don’t expect to actually see a prosecutor systematically remove an entire class of people.”
Lawrence Mosley, an African American man, was convicted of distributing marijuana by a Cole County jury in 2016 and sentenced to 12 years. In his appeal, which was handled by the public defender’s office, he challenged “the fact that he was convicted by an all-white jury.”
Carver says the reasons given by the prosecutor for striking a potential black juror from cases have been outrageous. “Because she worked for the state. OK, really? This is Cole County. We get state employees on juries all the time. I will tell you that I can’t think of another case in which the state struck a state employee just because they worked for the state.”
Sartorius thinks if county prosecutors are trying to eliminate black jurors from cases with black defendants, they’re being helped by an underrepresentation of African Americans in the jury pool itself.
Typically, those called in for jury duty are supposed to represent a cross section of the community. Sartorius says it’s not unusual in Cole County for only two out of 60 people in a jury pool to be African American.
He contends prosecutors have an easier time of eliminating black jurors when there are far fewer of them to choose from. “It’s kind of hard, if it’s an equal representation of two groups of people to get rid of a group. But when there’s two or three out of 60, it makes it a lot easier to get rid of an entire class of people.”
One of the speakers at the Thursday dinner held by the anti-discrimination activists was Missouri NAACP head Rod Chapel. He’s also an attorney who represented a group of black clergy members known as the Medicaid 23, who went to trial after disrupting floor debate in the Missouri Senate over Medicaid expansion.
Chapel says Cole County prosecutors struck potential black jurors in that case as well. “The idea that if you have a black defendant, that black people can’t serve on the jury flies in the face of American traditions of our jury system” said Chapel.
Carver, the Cole County Supervising Public Defender, sees the process of striking potential black jurors is having an adverse impact on black defendants. He says the practice could be harmful to African Americans’ trust in the justice system.
“It really causes the accused to lose respect for the court system, to lose respect for the verdict,” said Carver. “And if we want people to follow the law, they’ve got to have respect for the process. And they’ve got to feel like they’ve been treated fairly and justly.”
Mosely, whose verdict was reversed by the appeals court, will get a new trial in Cole County. Carver’s hoping that the jury selection this time around will be highly scrutinized. “You would sure think and hope! Yes!”