Phillips: Why Criner has all-white jury in UT murder case, and not jury of peers

 

Potential jurors are sworn in before jury selection in the capital murder case of Meechaiel Criner, the transient man accused of killing University of Texas student Haruka Weiser in April 2016, in District Judge David Wahlberg’s 167th district court Monday July 9, 2018.
RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Travis County prosecutor Rickey Jones concedes an all-white jury is far from ideal in a case in which the defendant is an African American, who would be sentenced to life without parole if he is found guilty of the capital murder charge he faces.

“It doesn’t look like a jury of one’s peers,” he told me. “People – especially African Americans — notice those things and raise questions.”

Those are the very questions Jones wants to avoid, not just in the current high-profile case in which Meechaiel Criner is on trial for killing and sexually assaulting University of Texas student Haruka Weiser, but in felony criminal cases that involve lengthy prison sentences.

Criner, 20, has pleaded not guilty to the 2016 crime on UT’s campus. He would spend the rest of his life in prison if the all-white jury finds him guilty.

Jury selection in the case brought into focus the deep distrust people of color harbor about the criminal justice system. Along with other challenges (such as concerns about missing time from work or not having child care) that affect most people’s ability to serve on juries, the belief that the criminal justice system discriminates against African American and Latinos makes it tough to seat them on juries, Jones said.

READ: Meechaiel Criner trial: Race at issue in second day of jury selection

That kind of revelation coming from a prosecutor is uncommon. But Jones, assistant director of the trial division for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, knows something of the difficulties in seating blacks on a jury. He worked as a criminal defense lawyer for 23 years before joining the DA’s Office. From that perch, Jones got an up-close look at the jury-selection system.

In many cases, including Criner’s, Jones said it was not mostly prosecutors striking blacks from the jury, but blacks taking themselves out of jury selection because they don’t trust the criminal justice system can be fair to African Americans. While jurors publicly uttering those beliefs during jury selection can be rehabilitated by a defense lawyer, prosecutor or judge, it’s the next step that disqualifies so many African Americans, he said.

“If they have this belief (about the criminal justice system), I can put that aside if they say they can be fair in this case,” Jones explained.

“If they say, ‘no,’ they can’t be fair in this case, then that is the end of it because that is the law.”

Jones said that is the step that eliminates minority jurors. He has witnessed many African Americans come right out and say that they would be unable to be impartial in assessing evidence and deciding sentencing of a black defendant charged with a serious felony.

“That is where we lose our black jurors,” he said. “We can’t rehabilitate them after that.”

Jones doesn’t deny that African Americans have good reason to believe the deck is stacked against them when it comes to the criminal justice system. The many exonerations by juries of police officers for shooting and killing unarmed African Americans under questionable circumstances are a case in point.

Then there are the patterns and practices of too many prosecutors who have been known to strike African Americans from juries because of their race, particularly in serious felony or death penalty cases involving black defendants. Such practices spurred the U.S. Supreme court to bar racial discrimination in the selection of juries.

In Texas, such practices were unearthed in 1986 by The Dallas Morning News which cited a 1963 internal memo in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office directing prosecutors when picking juries not to take “Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated.”

Such behavior by Dallas prosecutors continued, according to an analysis by the Morning News that showed as recently as 2002, Dallas County prosecutors were excluding eligible black prospects from juries at more than twice the rate they excluded whites.

RELATED: Study: Blacks routinely excluded from juries

A study reported by NPR in 2010 showed ongoing discriminatory tactics by prosecutors.

Bryan Stevenson’s nonprofit group Equal Justice Initiative detailed widespread discrimination in the selection of jurors across the Deep South. One of the most troubling reasons prosecutors cited for dismissing black jurors, Stevenson said, were assertions about their intelligence, even though many of those potential jurors were college graduates.

Those dynamics continue, including in the Criner case.

One African American was struck for having a felony background, as required by law. Another was struck by a prosecutor who questioned his fitness to serve because a questionnaire he answered had many confusing answers, Jones said.

But three of the other four blacks were dismissed because they were unable to follow the law regarding impartiality and fairness because of their views regarding the criminal justice system, Jones said. The fourth was let go for similar causes because of her views that the criminal justice system treats people with mental disabilities unfairly.

Aside from losing those potential jurors, another Travis County minority resident, who said he recently became a naturalized U.S. citizen, stated that during his time living in the country he has come to believe that minorities accused of a crime do not get fair trials. He, too, was dismissed.

With that, the standard – a jury of one’s peers – fell. An all-white jury was seated.

Jones believes things must change to prevent further erosion of public trust. He is right.

That has got to start with African Americans not opting out of jury service because of their legitimate beliefs about discrimination in the criminal justice system. Having those beliefs is OK, but as jurors, they must be impartial in assessing a defendant’s guilt or innocence regardless of his or her race.

Preventing unfair or unjust verdicts and sentencing requires sacrifice in giving one’s time to jury service when called. And it requires fairness from prosecutors in not using lame excuses to strike qualified people of color to justify keeping African Americans and other minorities off juries.