Court: few blacks for jury unacceptable, not unfair

If a 30 person jury pool in the trial of a black man contains only one black person, is he tried by a jury of peers in a community?

He is unless there’s evidence that the underrepresentation is because of a systemic effort that causes it, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled today.

It ruled in the case of Melvin Griffin, who was convicted in the rape of a woman at a sober house in Olmsted County. He only found out about the jury pool on the day of his trial and when his attorney complained, the judge asked if there was “any evidence or something to present to say that there [had] been a departure from law in the way that [the] jury ha[d] been . . . assembled or summoned?” When the attorney acknowledged he did not, the case proceeded.

According to the 2010 census, nearly 5 percent of Olmsted County residents identify themselves as black, while jury pools tend to be only about 1.5 percent black. The judge acknowledged after Griffin was convicted that the disparity is “chronic and unacceptable,” but upheld the verdict.

In his ruling today Judge John Rodenberg wrote that while the Sixth Amendment requires a jury represent a fair cross section of a community, “it does not guarantee a criminal defendant a jury of a particular composition or one that mirrors the community.”

He also noted that the census samples everyone in a community, and does not eliminate those who are ineligible to serve on juries — people under 18, for example. And 10 percent of the county is “foreign born”

Appellant argues that black persons were underrepresented on the panel called for jury service in his case, because the panel contained only 3.33% black persons, while the percentage of self-identified black persons in the community according to census records is 4.8%.

The state argues that, “because [black] persons constituted only 4.8% of the population of Olmsted County according to the 2010 census figures, achieving a jury panel of 30 persons that mirrors the community is . . . impossible.” It contends that, “if appellant’s jury panel had included one additional [black person], that distinctive group would have been overrepresented as a percentage of the population.”

But assuming that the 4.8% figure from the 2010 census has some statistical relevance concerning the percentage of black persons in Olmsted County who are eligible for jury service, we observe that the jury pool from which appellant’s jury was chosen was 3.33% black (which is 1.47% lower than the percentage of census data concerning self-identified black persons in the community).

The state correctly points out that, had the pool included one additional black juror, the percentage of black persons in the pool would have been 6.67%, or 1.87% higher than the percentage of self-identified black persons in the community

The judge said rigidly enforcing the percentages between the demographic data and jury pools would place an unfair burden on the justice system. But even so, he said, the 2010 census data doesn’t demonstrate a “’systematic exclusion’ of black persons from the Olmsted County jury pool.”

It’s possible the low number of black people in the jury pool was the result of people not showing up, he said.

  • Milford Brimley

    Setting aside for the moment that a judge could actual make a ruling based on the absurd assumption that there aren’t systemic differences in how the judicial system treats people of different races, the statistics angle was doomed from the start.
    If you assume the jury sampling is completely random and the real proportion of Blacks in the pool of potential jurors is 4.8%, then one should expect to get no Black person over a fifth of the time and only one Black person three-fifths of the time. Which is to say that getting one Black person is what you would end up with most of the time.
    But then again, it seems like a the word ‘peer’ should probably be defined by more than just race-specific population proportions, so the angle taken doesn’t even really seem to get at what the real issue is. Peers are people with shared experiences, and this is really what the race angle is trying to get at. From this angle, one could potentially argue that there were very few actual peers on the jury.