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.

 

Looking for our 2016 endorsements?

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

 

Early voting for the national and local elections starts October 24 and while the Editorial Board is not endorsing in the presidential race, we are weighing in on some very important issues facing Central Texans.

There’s no doubt that by now most Americans know how they’ll vote on the main ticket this presidential election, but local races are just as important — if not more so, some will argue — and deserve voters’ attention. It’s at the local level that the Editorial Board has decided to focus and dig a little deeper, providing both analytical editorials on some of the most pressing issues coupled with Q&A’s with candidates who will take on these issues if elected. Below, you’ll find a list of the races and issues we’ve chosen to weigh in  on.

So whether you choose to head to the polls next week (early voting ends Nov. 4) or decide to wait for Election Day on Nov. 8, we encourage you to make it through to the end of the ballot and cast as an informed vote as much a possible. (BTW: Need more info on Austin City Council Candidates? Don’t know who represents you? No problem. Use the Statesman’s City Council Candidate Explorer to answer your questions.)

Presidential Election:

Mobility Bonds Election:

Travis County Sheriff race:

Travis County District Attorney race:

Austin City Council District 2 and 4 races:

Austin City Council District 6 race:

Austin City Council Districts 7 and 10 races:

Austin Community College Board of Trustee races:

Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees races:

 

And of course, you can get full election coverage here: Statesman Elections 2016

 

Do we ask too much of police officers?

rgz dallas police vigil 11
July 14, 2016 – Austin police officers stand at attention during the playing of Taps during a vigil held for the slain Dallas police officers held at the State Capitol Texas Peace Officer Memorial in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, July 14, 2016. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Today my 7- year-old daughter told me she wants to be a police officer. Her announcement came just 20 minutes after viewing the latest shooting of an unarmed man by a police officer, this time in Oklahoma.

Her statement highlighted for me how complicated my own emotions are about the job performed by those who keep us safe. Fear for their safety, fear for my own safety, fear that a second of human misjudgment can haunt someone for the rest of  their lives and fear that unreasonable stereotypes can lead to an unnecessary blood bath.

I’ve written before about the false choice presented by some who suggest that it this i is and issue that can be solved simply by picking the right side: “Blue lives” versus “black lives” gets us nowhere.

But when it comes to perspective, often much of what we hear and read gets lost in outrage. So, today we have two columns about policing. One from the perspective of those asked to do this difficult job and one from someone who carries the fear that comes with loving someone who does such a dangerous job.

Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, makes the argument that we’ve placed too much on the shoulders of our police force, expecting them to keep our streets safe while being “dogcatcher, counselors and child minders.”

We have the most educated and well-trained police force in the history of the country, and they are more than qualified to be a part of the solutions to the problems that we face. They are equipped with the knowledge and training to step in and assist and work to make the city safer from the front lines.

But our officers, no matter how well-trained and qualified cannot do all the things of which they have been asked. They want to serve our community, and they want to do it by working alongside city leaders who unfortunately seem unwilling to make the tough decisions necessary to find real solutions to solve our social problems. So the men and women who proudly wear the badge are tasked with the repercussions.

Tiffany Whoolery is the 26-year-old daughter of a 27-year veteran of the Travis County Sheriff’s office, who has been a sergeant on the SWAT Team for 15 years. She writes about growing up with the reality that accompanies being in a household where a parent is called to some of the most volatile incidents in the county.

I wish the world could see police officers the way I do and not just how much of the media portrays them. Police brutality is a very serious matter and I hold those officers accountable, but there are way more good officers than bad. We have to understand they are here to protect us. Trust me, a police officer didn’t pick this career path for the crap pay, long hours, countless missed birthdays and volleyball games, or the constant lack of respect. No. They chose this career path because they value human life and our safety.

I want my daughter to be that kind of person — the thought is both terrifying and humbling. Here’s hoping by the time she’s old enough to make that choice that our society has made more progress of the knotty questions around police, public safety, use of force and race. Law enforcement is an incredibly difficult job, and we need those who answer the call to be willing and able to do it.

When will black lives matter?

Police Shooting Louisiana
In this July 5, 2016, photo made from video, Alton Sterling is detained by two Baton Rouge police officers outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. Moments later, one of the officers shot and killed Sterling. (Arthur Reed via AP)

I promised myself that I would not watch the video of Alton Sterling’s death at the hands of a Baton Rouge police officer. Even in the still photos of Sterling in life, I see the face of every black man I know  — my 39-year-old brother, my male cousins, my college classmates, my friends.

Instead, I watched the video of Sterling’s widow speak at a press conference while her 15-year-old son sobbed next to her. I saw not just a boy reeling from the loss of his father, but the realization of a boy on the cusp of becoming a man that he too faces the same peril. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong cop.

WATCH: Who was Alton Sterling?

Then to be greeted this morning by news of a second police shooting death, even more egregious than the first. A black man stopped for a broken taillight in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., shot with a 4-year-old in the back seat and his girlfriend sitting next to him. By witness accounts Philando Castile had a license to carry a handgun — a fact that he disclosed to the officer as he had been trained to do. His girlfriend streamed the aftermath on Facebook Live, which has received more than 2 million views by Thursday morning.

Just as Roxanne Gay in today’s New York Times writes,  I am also “so very tired.” I am distraught that two years of videos and outcry seems to have made little difference in the outcomes of these cases. It is one thing to talk quietly among family about how to be cautious in your dealings with police because you know the threat is real; it is entirely another to be bludgeoned month after month on social media by graphic images of case after tragic case with seemingly no end in sight.

Gay wrote:

We know what happens now because this brand of tragedy has become routine. The video of Mr. Sterling’s death allows us to bear witness, but it will not necessarily bring justice. There will be protest as his family and community try to find something productive to do with sorrow and rage. Mr. Sterling’s past will be laid bare, every misdeed brought to light and used as justification for police officers choosing to act as judge, jury and executioner — due process in a parking lot.

While gun rights activists and the National Rifle Association sanctimoniously argue about preservation of their Second Amendment Rights and their recent victories in Texas over campus carry and open carry, I know that I will never carry a firearm any further than  a gun range. I also know that I will tell my daughters to never ride in a car with a firearm, whether the owner is licensed or not. Why? Because the “hero” image in the fight for open carry and gun rights in Texas is a white man in boots, not a black man in a hoodie.

READ MORE FROM VIEWPOINTS: Sandra Bland’s death is sad reminder of double standard

There are problems that our society has no idea how to fix — and the issues of race and policing are in that category. Body cameras help, better training helps, community policing helps, but these are not complete solutions. Ridding ourselves of these senseless shootings requires a degree of honesty about cultural bias, white privilege and perceptions about black and brown people that I’m not confident our society can muster. And as long as the immediate (and human) instinct is to draw a weapon in the face of fear, it is inevitable that an officer will eventually shoot to kill without cause.

I watched both shooting videos this morning so that I could write this column. With each viewing I feel a small sliver of hope and optimism about the future for my daughters and my nephews being sliced away. But this is my job, so I can only hope that one day there are no more videos to watch, not because no one is brave enough to film, but because there is no longer anything to see.

NEWS STRAIGHT TO YOUR INBOX: Click here to get our Morning Headlines email

 

Haruka Weiser’s death and the right to know

A University of Texas police officer stands nearby as students gather at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center near Waller Creek to lay flowers and pay their respects for slain student Haruka Weiser. RODOLFO GONZALEZ /AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
A University of Texas police officer stands nearby as students gather at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center near Waller Creek to lay flowers and pay their respects for slain student Haruka Weiser. RODOLFO GONZALEZ /AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

As we at the American-Statesman have reported on the death of University of Texas student Haruka Weiser, we’ve received some pushback on social media and in story comments from readers who think we’re going too far.

Last night, Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski was the first to report that Weiser had been strangled and sexually assaulted. The report, based on carefully vetted sources whom we did not identify because they were not authorized to publicly disclose these details, answered one of the basic questions surrounding the case a week after Weiser’s death. It also raised the possibility of additional charges related to sexual assault, pending DNA results.

To us in the Statesman newsroom, this was a newsworthy development. Some readers weren’t so sure, as this story commenter put it:

I hope at some point in time the press and media will stop sniffing for yet more and more information about this woman’s demise to blab to the purient public.  If necessary, pls put all such information in supermarket rags or TMZ and not in legitimate press.  It is no one’s business other than officials and family about the grisly details of how she died.

We understand such concerns, of course. We have those very same discussions in the newsroom. We take the public’s right to know seriously, and we’re not just talking about a “prurient public” interested in horrific details. We’re talking about public safety, university security, law enforcement and prosecutorial accountability and, yes, even ensuring that the rights of the accused are protected. Manner of death in a high-profile homicide is the most basic of questions — one that had been asked by our readers for a week.

We understand that reading about any case will be difficult for the victim’s family. Like you, we feel for their loss. But we also have a responsibility and a mission to inform, and, unfortunately, that sometimes means reporting information that the victim’s family will not want to read. In a case like this, that will happen countless times as the case goes through the legal system. We took that into account with Tuesday’s story, making sure that law enforcement had a chance to notify Weiser’s family before our story published. We also exercised restraint in which crime-scene details to publish and which to omit at this time.

Today, some on Facebook took offense to our posting of an interactive timeline tracing the events outlined in Meechaiel Khalil Criner’s arrest affidavit. Others have requested that we not run Criner’s mugshot. Of course, those are the basics of a story that will continue to be reported out and followed by media not just here in Austin but around the world.

We understand that the details are not pleasant, but we believe that pursuit of those details is vitally important.

— John Bridges, managing editor

From the notebook: Travis County Sheriff candidates’ platform on ICE detainers

Candidates look on as they hear from community members who have experienced the impact of sheriff’s policies firsthand about the issues they have deemed most critical at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin on Saturday, Feb 13, 2016. from left to right: Todd Radford,Don Rios, Debbie Russell and John Sisson. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Candidates look on as they hear from community members who have experienced the impact of sheriff’s policies firsthand about the issues they have deemed most critical at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin on Saturday, Feb 13, 2016. from left to right: Todd Radford, Don Rios, Debbie Russell and John Sisson. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

At a public forum last week, Democratic candidates for Travis County Sheriff traded barbs over whether they would fully comply with a controversial federal immigrant detention program.

One candidate even invoked a conversation during the candidates’ endorsement interview with the Statesman’s editorial board, where the candidates were also asked what their position was on cooperating with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in detaining immigrants, American-Statesman’s Nicole Barrios reported. Of the six candidates seeking to succeed Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, only one said he would keep the sheriff’s most controversial policy.

During the forum held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin on Saturday, former Austin police Lt. John Sisson, a Democratic candidate, told the audience that he’s been advocating to end Travis County’s participation in the ICE program since 2007, when he ran against Hamilton.

“I was sitting with the editorial board, and the question was, ‘Will you cooperate with immigration officials?’ Todd (Radford) and Sally (Hernandez) said yes, they would, except for minor violations; Don (Rios) and I said no,” Sisson said at the forum. “You cannot pick and choose who goes and who stays.”

Two things from Barrios’ story stood out to me: Hernandez taking offense to Sisson’s claim and Rios’ telling Saturday’s audience that the first goal of his campaign was to end ICE detainers.

So, I listened to my recording of the interview to see where Sisson’s memory (or notes) and mine didn’t match and to see if Rios made it clear to us his intention with ICE detainers.

To Sisson’s point, he and Rios were the only two candidates who stated that they would not comply with ICE at all, while Radford and Hernandez said they would draw a line in certain cases.  But Rios never mentioned his position on ICE detainers until he was asked directly.

Yes, the topic of ICE came up several times, but it was during a specific portion of our hour-long conversation where each candidate gave details to their position on the issue. Sisson was the only candidate who made the issue part of his introduction.

Off the bat, answering a question of why he was running for the position, Sisson said: “What I want to do for Travis County is end our collaboration with immigration officials, I want to put body cameras on all deputies and consistent training, de-escalation training, sensitivity training cultural diversity training , mental health training.” No other candidate referenced ICE in their answer to the same question.

Later in our conversation, the candidates were asked to name three important planks of their criminal justice reform or platform. Rios was the only candidate who did not mention cooperation with ICE as a reform. The others mentioned cooperation to some degree in their platforms.

When editorial board member Alberta Phillips asked John Sisson to name any sheriffs in Texas who are not currently cooperating with ICE officials, Sisson pointed to Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who as Sisson explained, is “cooperating somewhat, she’s just not holding (immigrants) for minor violations.” And when asked if he would cooperate at all, Sission responded, “No ma’am”.

Hernandez told us her platform would mirror Sheriff Valdez’s program in Dallas.

When asked the same question, Radford replied, “this broad brush stroke effect that we’re going to send everybody to ICE and cooperate in that fashion doesn’t make sense to me.”

Since Rios was the only candidate who had shared his views on cooperating with ICE, we him directly if he would. His answer: “ I would not cooperate at all.”

The candidates then were given the opportunity to explain their position on ICE detainers. Their responses included:

Radford: “The issue for me is [that] it’s not equitable. When we start to infringe upon issues of inequity, that’s when we have to take a stance. For me there are two issues: One, crossing: coming into our state which is an illegal act and federal illegal act. But the issue staying past, is more an administrative issue, more of a civil issue. ..if we have people in our facilities who have answered for our state issues and they’re ready to be released (but aren’t because of an ICE retainer), it would be very much akin to someone calling and saying the person violated the tenants of their contract I need you to hold them 28 more hours. I wouldn’t do that to anybody else nor should I be expected to do so with this one person just based on their immigrant status.”

Rios: “It’s not a criminal act it’s actually a civil violation of the immigration law. That’s what we’re talking about. We are also talking about people who have been arrested but not convicted of anything…We are talking about who are innocent. We are not talking about people who are guilty. Those people who are guilty will get deported.”

Rios continued: “When a judge has that affidavit, it is his or her responsibility to ensure the safety of our community and that particular bond setting of what they feel that crime…This comes truly down to a violation of the Fourth Amendment, for me. If ICE would have probable cause and get that reviewed by a judge, having judicial review, then we wouldn’t be talking about this issue.”

Hernandez said her choice of non-cooperating with ICE was about making everyone in the community feel safe, including the immigrant community. Sisson agreed with Rios’ response.

Sisson was correct to say that during our endorsement meeting he and Rios were the only candidates to take a firm stance against cooperating with ICE detainers, while Hernandez and Radford suggested they would cooperate with ICE in violent criminal cases. But it took reading Barrios’ story for me to understand that eliminating ICE from the Sheriff’s office was a priority for Rios.