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Jury Seats

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The discriminatory practices of the criminal justice system are further coming to light due to a ruling last week.

According to Mercury News, a California appeals court came to the conclusion that a Contra Costa County prosecutor’s excusal of every Black person from the jury pool in a 2017 murder trail against Black defendants was legally protected.

Even though the court upheld convictions against Antioch residents Gary Bryant Jr. and Diallo Jackson, one of the three judges also communicated that the case exposed “serious shortcomings” in existing laws, which he explained makes it too hard for judges to identify racial discrimination. He also said that it’s too easy for attorneys to “mask bias” by conjuring up excuses for why they are dismissing potential jurors of a specific race or religion.

A number of the jurors in the 2017 case were dismissed after referencing bad experiences with the cops or expressing unease about the justice system.

“The time has come for the Legislature, Supreme Court and Judicial Council to consider meaningful measures to reduce actual and perceived bias in jury selection,” wrote First District Appellate Court Judge P.J. Humes in a concurrence attached to the September 27 decision.

A spokesperson for the Contra Costa County district attorney said the office would be open to such changes in the system, but they still upheld that the appeals court “correctly found that the District Attorney’s Office, during the course of the trial, did not exclude any jurors based on their race.”

A transcript from the case also read that the prosecutor, Senior Deputy District Attorney Chris Walpole, also accused defense attorneys of trying to bar Asians from serving on the jury, and the trial judge appeared to be in agreement.

The whole ordeal caused justice reform advocates to point out that many cases involve people being excluded from juries simply for being transparent about their experiences. It’s illegal for attorney to keep members of a certain race or religion from serving on juries. Reversing a conviction requires clear evidence of racist intent.

“Black jurors are routinely dismissed because of a negative experience with the racial bias of a police officer. That does not mean they are any less impartial than someone who has only had positive interactions with law enforcement,” explained Brandon Banks, president of the Contra Costa County Public Defenders Association. “The result is that defendants of color don’t have diverse juries, and again the criminal justice system is rigged against them.”

Bryant and Jackson were convicted of robbery and murder, as well as gang enhancements, in the 2014 murder of 23-year-old Kenneth Wayne Cooper. The victim was shot at the seat of his car at an apartment complex in Antioch.

Six Black people answered the jury service call in Bryant and Jackson’s 2017 trial. During the jury selection process, prospective jurors where questioned on a variety of topics relevant to the case, including whether they had biases for or against law enforcement and whether they would be able to reach a verdict based on a single witness’ testimony. They were also questioned on their general feelings on how Black people fared in the criminal justice system, considering both Bryant and Jackson were Black.

A few of the six said that they had been discriminated against by cops. One person said that they were pulled over three times in Union City by cops for no justifiable reason, while another explained that she felt cops were wrong towards her underage son when they questioned him without an adult present.

All six of the Black jurors questioned were excused. Two were dismissed for cause, one  was dismissed because she said the entire judicial system was corrupt, and another was dismissed because she believed she knew one of the defendants. The other four people were dismissed when Walpole made use of some of his limited juror challenges to remove them. Defense attorneys unsuccessfully objected, claiming Walpole purposefully keeping Black people off the jury.

Currently, Walpole is the acting third in command of Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office. The person in charge of the district attorney’s union, Aron DeFerrari, said in an email that the appeals court had “vindicated” Walpole.

“Our prosecutors are dedicated to selecting fair and impartial jurors, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation; Mr. Walpole did just that,” DeFerrari wrote.


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