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.

 

Latinos had income gains, but not all the news is rosy

Bladimira Martinez takes notes while her daughter and business associate, Yessenia Ramirez, conducts business in Pflugerville last month. Martinez recently started her own cleaning company after years of working for others at or near minimum wage. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The headlines have been heartening lately for Latinos in Austin and across the country, at least when it comes to narrowing the income and education gaps that have dogged the nation’s largest minority group for years.

Recently, we learned that Latinos in the Austin-Round Rock metro area saw a hefty 17 percent increase in median household income from 2015 to 2016 — rising from $48,160 to $56,306, according to new census data.

RELATED: Why Austin-area Latinos saw a big boost in household incomes

Encouraging, yes, but it’s not time to get carried away just yet. It’s true that household incomes rose for Austin-area Latinos, but they still trail whites by a large margin.

Still, closing the income gap offers hope for anyone who believes in the old cliché that a rising tide lifts all boats. And for some time now in Austin, Latinos and African Americans have lagged behind whites in terms of quality of life barometers like income and educational attainment.

Attempts to close gaps led the city to launch Hispanic Quality of Life and African American Quality of Life initiatives, which I covered many years ago. The reviews were mixed. Some minority residents said they didn’t accomplish nearly enough. Some Austinites said the city should help all residents, not just certain minority groups. Regardless where you stood, many of the issues the initiatives sought to address back then are still around.

But back to the good news. Another reason to be encouraged is that there’s plenty of demographic evidence around to believe that if the Austin region will continue to prosper, the future will depend to a large part on the young and fast-growing Hispanic population.

In Travis County alone, 47 percent of the child population is Hispanic, researchers with the Community Advancement Network (CAN) found.

“When I speak to groups, I tell them, ‘That’s our future right there. That’s what the community is going to look like in 20 or 30 years,’” Raul Alvarez, who heads (CAN), told me.

Latinos already make up about 32 percent of the roughly 2 million overall population in the Austin-Round Rock metro area, according to 2016 census data. That’s no secret. What many people don’t know, however, is that demographic experts expect that the Latino population will become the largest portion of the Central Texas workforce sometime in about the next 15 years.

Such projections, however, increasingly lead to worries that Latinos will be left behind because as skill requirements for some careers rise, comparative lack of education could leave a growing share of the local Latino workforce stuck in low-wage jobs.

RELATED: The promise and the challenge of the Latino job puzzle

But there’s good news on that front, too. According to experts, one of the logical explanations behind the Latino income increase is that Latinos are reaching higher education levels.

The percentage of Texas Latinos ages 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree increased between 2015 and 2016, the American-Statesman reported recently.

A new report by the Pew Research Center also found that among Hispanics nationwide, the high school dropout rate is at a new low – 10 percent, continuing a decline spanning several decades. Moreover, as the Hispanic dropout rate plummeted, the share of Hispanic high school graduates who enter college rose, Pew reported.

CASTILLO: A new giving network answers why Latinos need a hand

While encouraging, the new income and education benchmarks aren’t all rosy, and pronounced disparities between minorities and whites persist.

Those figures showing the U.S. Hispanic high school dropout rate is at a new low of 10 percent? They don’t tell the full story: the Hispanic dropout rate was higher than for any other racial and ethnic group.

And though Austin Hispanics may have closed the gaps when it comes to income, they still lag far behind whites, whose median household income in 2016 was close to $74,000 – 31 percent higher than that of Latinos ($56,306) and 48 percent higher than that of African Americans (49,871).

And when income is measured another way – per capita –Hispanics in Central Texas make less than half of what Anglos on average make per year, according to the Austin Community Foundation.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that though Hispanics comprise only about a third of the overall Travis County population, they make up 55 percent of all Travis residents living in poverty, according to CAN, which keeps an annual Dashboard on its website that measures socioeconomic indicators.

It’s even worse for children. CAN researchers found that Hispanic children, although comprising 47 percent of the child population, make up 74 percent of all Travis County children living in poverty.

For Alvarez, that figure may be more troubling than anything else.

“That’s important because it says Hispanics are overrepresented in terms of family and poverty, and they’re going to face challenges that other populations are not going to face,” Alvarez told me.

In other words, there’s good news for area Latinos, but there’s much work to be done.

 

Travis county DA’s new family violence policy shows promise

The Honorable Margaret Moore at the Heman Marion-Sweatt Courthouse Tuesday morning January 3, 2017. (RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

There are myriad complex reasons why domestic violence victims stay with their abusers. In many cases, it is fear that the abuser will deliver on threats to hurt – or kill – the victim or people close to the victim, including children, friends and family members. Many of those reasons are also why – once police and courts are involved – many victims choose to reconcile rather than press charges against their aggressors.

Reconciliation not only keeps victims in dangerous relationships, it also makes it more difficult to bring charges that result in criminal convictions.

Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore may have found a way to reduce the opportunity of reconciliation with a new policy she instituted to contact victims within 48 hours of an arrest. The policy could be a game-changer in addressing one of the county’s most common felonies: family violence.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 20 people are physically abused by intimate partners every minute in the U.S. In Texas, one in three individuals will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence.

Through June of this year, Travis County authorities filed 824 family violence cases, with more than half — 455 — involving intimate partners.

A victim knows well the extent an abuser will go to maintain control of the victim. Victims know that leaving is as dangerous a risk as staying.

A study of domestic violence-related homicides by the American Journal of Public Heath looked at 4,470 individuals killed in domestic violence–related incidents. Eighty percent were victims killed by their abusers.  The remaining 20 percent included family members, new intimate partners, friends, acquaintances, police officers and strangers.

Moore’s 48-hour contact policy replaces a grinding outreach through mailing letters — many of which went to old addresses, the American-Statesman’s Ryan Autullo reported.

The new policy also turns two part-time positions into a full-time intake attorney — yet another way to speed up prosecutions, the district attorney said.

To relieve an overflowing docket, Moore appointed a family violence prosecutor to each of the eight district judges’ courts. The move, Moore told me in an email, has resulted in fewer cases for family violence attorneys and more for trial division attorneys. Since January, family violence attorneys have drawn about 100-125 cases each, down from about 400 last year before the new policy was implemented. Trial Division attorneys have drawn about 180-259 cases each since January, up from about 146 last year.

All attorneys will continue to work at a fast pace under the new policy, though domestic violence cases are among the most time-intensive cases the office handles, Moore said.

That’s something to keep an eye on, especially if an increased number of cases adds stress to already overburdened Trial Division attorneys.

If so, Moore should revisit the policy, so that other areas serving Travis County aren’t negatively affected.

Right now, the new policy shows promise. Figures from the first half of 2017 show grand juries are hearing family violence cases, on average, 47 days after an arrest. That’s down from 77 days in 2016.

That’s good news. The longer it takes to investigate a case, the more likely a victim will reconcile with the abuser – and that makes it more difficult to bring an abuser to justice, allowing abusers to continue to hurt others.

Questions about Dawnna Dukes’ staff warrant investigation

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Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, wears a neck brace as she reaches over to place a vote on the House floor of the State Capitol on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. Rep. Dukes was in a car accident two years ago and was absent most of the 2015 session because of her injuries. (Rodolfo Gonzalez / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Questions about Texas Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ use of her staff are not going away anytime soon. Fortunately for Dukes, the latest news that Travis County prosecutors have opened an investigation comes after the Democratic primary.

The 11-term Austin Democrat has taken heat in recent months for directing state employees to raise money for an East Austin nonprofit event, the African-American Community Heritage Festival, and for having staff members do personal errands and chores for her.

Dukes does not dispute that her staff worked on the festival and maintains that she never violated state law. She is correct that constituent relations is a fairly broad category of work. State legislators march in parades, throw their considerable weight behind local causes and devote staff resources to help in that effort. She told Statesman reporter Sean Collins Walsh:

“There is nothing in the statute that prohibits a legislator or an elected official from doing any work that benefits their constituency or organizations … that serve their constituencies,” Dukes said of the 17-year-old Heritage Festival, which raises scholarship money for Huston-Tillotson University students.

However, the other accusations are concerning, especially the requirement that staffers care for Dukes’ daughter. If not a true legal case of improper use of staff for non-governmental  duties, it certainly signals poor judgement.

The fact that Dukes says that she provided room and board in exchange for the work does not matter. Serving as an after-school nanny is a bit different than fetching the occasional cup of coffee and picking up the dry cleaning. It’s an arrangement that tips the balance of power too far in the employer’s direction, especially for a public employee. The arrangement makes it impossible to separate which duties are for the taxpayers and which work is personal.

I’m certainly sympathetic to the struggles of a working mother, but mixing personal and professional as Dukes has is unwise. We’ll leave to prosecutors and investigators to determine if it is illegal.

The reports on the subject by the Statesman and the Texas Tribune pile on top of concerns raised last session over Dukes’ frequent absenteeism for missed votes. She has explained that she was still recovering from a 2013 car accident.

Dukes was unopposed in the March Democratic primary.  She does face Republican Gabriel Nila in November, however her district is solidly blue and at this moment an upset seems unlikely, especially with the Travis County Republican Party still trying to sort out how to deal with its new Party Chairman Robert Morrow. Things could change if the investigation goes badly for Dukes.

 

 

In an economically segregated city, Super Tuesday voting makes sense

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Early voters wait in line at the Travis County Clerk’s office at Airport Boulevard. Who county voters chose in the primary depended largely on where they live and where they fall on the socioeconomic spectrum. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Politics are local, and if you doubt that, just take a look at the maps of Travis County’s Super Tuesday polling results.

Recall for a minute that Austin is one of the most economically segregated cities in America. That fact alone makes maps like these that show how precincts broke in Tuesday’s primary races very compelling.

Let’s take the Democrats first.

Who is “Feeling the Bern” in Travis County? Well, they are the folks living in the tight corridor between Interstate 35 and Mopac Boulevard. The same Austinites who are screaming the loudest about skyrocketing property taxes and rents. They are not as wealthy as their neighbors to the west — in West Lake Hills, Lost Creek and Steiner Ranch — who also grouse about their bills, but have more of a cushion to absorb the financial hit.

At the same time, the precincts that went for Sen. Bernie Sanders are also generally better educated and less ethnically diverse than their neighbors to the east, who appear to believe that Hillary Clinton is the better, safer bet.

And the economic realities don’t just apply to Democrats. Take a look at Travis County Republicans and you see a three-way split. Marco Rubio took Travis County to the tune of 29 percent with Ted Cruz coming in second with 28 percent — one big reason Travis County tracked differently than the rest of the state had to do with economics (and maybe a little bit of Democrats trying to damage Donald Trump by voting in the the opposite party primary according to anecdotal reports.)

Looking at the same precinct map on the Republican side, wealthier voters in the center city and increasingly gentrified areas of East Austin went for Rubio (plus Circle C, Westlake Hills and Lakeway) and Ted Cruz held strong with suburban voters from Pflugerville to Lago Vista. Trump’s constituency is in the less affluent corners of the county — the rural far northeast corner and the corridor along U.S. 183 between I-35 and the airport. The precinct that tied with Ted Cruz? Home to Circuit of the Americas. The one area that breaks the economic mold? Steiner Ranch which appears to be Trump country for reasons that are still unclear.

So how do such dynamics play out in local races? Just look at the Democratic race for Travis County commissioner in Precinct 1. The two front-runners, Jeff Travillion and Arthur Sampson are headed to a runoff in May, but the votes from this week are telling about where their base lies, especially in a race where all five candidates were African American men.

Travillion, a City of Austin division  manager who is deeply connected and lives in Pflugerville, did well in the more diverse areas of the precinct, which have relatively higher incomes and and more education — Pflugerville, Manor and near East Austin. He and James Nortey, who lives in Mueller, were essentially fighting for the same voter, especially in the precincts closer to the heart of Austin which were more familiar with his neighborhood association work and efforts on the city’s planning commission.

Arthur Sampson did better in City of Austin neighborhoods that have not felt the effects of gentrification as strongly and are hungry for economic development that will not speed the exodus of African Americans from the city. They represent some of the poorest families in the city with the fewest college graduates. The third place candidate, Richard Franklin, succeeded in his home turf of Del Valle, where he is known for his work on the school board. It’s an area that is more than 60 percent Hispanic and relies the most heavily on Travis County for public safety and other services.

For those casting about trying to make sense of this crazy election cycle, some things have not changed. Voters still cast their ballots based on their common interests and the view is very different from where one sits  on the wage and education spectrum. Clearly, Austin’s economic segregation in Austin can make it hard to see that other political point of view.

 

 

 

Gary Cobb’s fall in Travis DA race was of his own making

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Democratic candidate for Travis County District Attorney Gary Cobb greets voters as the polls at Zilker Elementary school on Kinney Ave. Cobb lost to former county commissioner Margaret Moore in Tuesday’s primary. RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The fall of Gary Cobb appeared to happen practically overnight, but in fact, his political demise in last night’s Democratic primary race for district attorney was more than 20 years in the making.

Cobb was the heir apparent to sitting District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg — the leading and only Democrat in the race until reports in the Statesman last November about a pending court ordered debt in a decades-old divorce case and seemingly contradictory statements under oath about his financial affairs.The controversy motivated two Democratic challengers and on Tuesday night Margaret Moore trounced Cobb in the three-way race 60 percent to 34 percent. Defense attorney Rick Reed (who chose to encourage supporters to vote for Moore on Tuesday) earned 6 percent of the vote.

Given the political make-up and history of Travis County, a win in the Democratic primary nearly assures that the winner will become the county’s top prosecutor. The legal community and several powerful local Democrats considered the questions raised in the November story serious enough to recruit Moore, rather than risk the loss of a reliably Democratic seat. Cobb was unable to shake the shadow cast on his professional credibility as an officer of the court.

We acknowledged Cobb’s flaws when we endorsed him in February, but we were  concerned by Moore’s insistence that the job was merely one of administration. Considering the current state of tumult in the national conversation over how criminal justice is dispensed in communities of color, we thought Cobb was better prepared for the post.

Cobb has no one to blame for his loss but himself. Those who aspire to elected office should deal with legal entanglements before asking voters for their support. They should also conduct themselves under oath with circumspection. To do any less is to open up oneself to the sort of attacks Cobb faced and eventually succumbed to on Tuesday night.

Moore still must face Republican and civil litigator Maura Phelan in November. Hopefully Moore will use the political intermission to strengthen her ties to the community beyond the legal community and consider ways that, if elected in November, she might be able to work with new Travis County sheriff and the county’s police chiefs to implement reforms that help strengthen the community and the taxpayers, while keeping us all safe.