Orleans Public Defender Launches Juror Project
By Mariama Eversley
What if the most policed communities had more leverage in deciding the outcome of criminal cases? After three years of defending some of poorest people in Orleans Parish, the most incarcerated city on earth, local public defender Will Snowden launched the Juror Project; an initiative aimed to diversify jury panels in terms of race, thought, experience, socioeconomic background, and more. “We as a community should be involved with who we think should be sent to prison and a way to be involved is through jury service” says Snowden, “the studies show with more diversity there’s more fairness, there’s longer deliberation, more questions are going to be asked [and] things like implicit biases and racial anxiety are going to be addressed.” This project also comes in the midst of the Supreme Court considering tightening rules around racial discrimination in jury selection for the first time in 30 years.[i]
We often hear of all white juries convicting black defendants, but less about how juries become that way. Potential jurors can be removed during voir dire, a preliminary screening process, through two legal mechanisms: legal cause strikes and peremptory strikes. Under the premise that jurors must be rejected if they demonstrate an inability to follow the law, district attorneys utilize legal cause to reject individuals who hold fundamental disagreements about which communities are policed, what we arrest them for, and the severity of sentences. Snowden experienced this last year when a potential juror expressed he could not vote guilty for a simple possession of drug charge because the defendant was not drug dealer and had no intention to sell. When other potential jurors agreed with him, they were all removed for legal cause.
The language around peremptory strikes is vaguer and district attorneys have employed the clause to reject jurors for almost any reason. A prosecutor in Kansas notoriously used peremptory strikes to reject a potential juror in a 1993 case State V. Crawford stating that he “looked like a drug dealer”[ii] and was “too stupid to live much less be on a jury.”[iii] “It’s within the peremptory strikes that I think a lot of discrimination is happening,” said Snowden “where a particular person may be getting removed for whatever race neutral reason is offered, but really they’re being removed for more strategic purposes with an eye towards making it easier to convict somebody.” The struggle against peremptory strikes is a loaded one, including a warning from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in a 1986 ruling Batson V. Kentucky that “ending racial discrimination in jury selection can be accomplished only by eliminating peremptory challenges entirely.”[iv]
The juror project is challenging these upending ideologies that privilege jurors who can agree to vote guilty before the trial starts through legal education and awareness of discriminatory practices, “one thing the juror project discusses with the community is this idea of mandatory minimums and what that actually looks like in Louisiana.” Snowden suggests we must depart from a so-called task oriented system of discerning guilt and instead encourage jurors to truly vote their conscience, “When I go to trial for an individual charged with possession of heroin and they have two prior convictions, that person is facing life in prison if we lose. A jury will never hear me say that during a trial.” Jurors rarely have the ability to bring nuance to sentencing deliberation and discuss the practices like increasing the sentencing range of non-violent crimes for individuals with prior felonies.
Local prosecutors have accused the juror project of corrupting jury selection and coaching individuals about how to get on a jury. In response Snowden highlights the importance of a diverse and well-informed jury roster, “When we have a mindset that what I’m doing is somehow corrupting the system,” responded Snowden, “part of what they’re saying is they disagree with my efforts to increase the diversity of jury panels. And if we boil it down to why that may be is because they may know they have greater chances of convicting a young black man when they don’t have as many black people on the jury.”
In the future, the juror project hopes to train other communities to give their presentations, collect more data to illustrate the discriminatory effects of jury purging practices, and engage directly with individuals to expand the potential power of jury service. Although, according to the department of justice, about 95% of defendants take plea deals, Snowden hopes with a fairer jury trial system more defendants will go to trial and achieve deserved acquittals.
[i] Totenberg, Nina. “Supreme Court Takes On Racial Discrimination In Jury Selection.” National Public Radio (2016): n. pag. Web. Nov.-Dec. 2016.
[ii] State v. Crawford, 03-1494 (La. App. 5 Cir. 4/27/04); 873 So.2d 768, 784
[iv] Batson V Kentucky. Supreme Court. 30 Apr. 1986.