DETROIT — "It kind of makes you scratch your head," U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Barbara McQuade said speaking about the absence of minority jurors in southeast Michigan.
Left: Chief Federal Defender Miriam Siefer, Pastor and Attorney Bertram Marks and Chief Federal Judge for the Eastern District Gerald Rosen.
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"So you think…at least one will be Arab or Hispanic, but instead there's maybe one Hispanic and Arab, or even zero," she said. "People feel cheated when they come to a trial and there's not enough jurors on the jury who reflect them."
McQuade and other legal experts weighed in on the issue June 27 during a town hall meeting titled, Inclusion and the Justice System: Why Jury Diversity Matters and the Importance of Jury Service at Wayne County Community College District here.
Jury diversity has become an issue as more people have started to feel they were deprived a fair trial because the jury was not reflective of their ethnic background.
It has become an issue in local trials with many attorneys claiming their clients were denied fair verdicts because of the jury makeup.
Judge Victoria Roberts recently spoke about the topic on a radio show, and was asked whether a black defendant could have a fair trial in a Detroit federal courthouse with an all white jury. Roberts' answer was yes, because she believes jurors follow instructions and the law.
She says that still isn't good enough, and broad discussions should happen among jurors with different ethnic backgrounds.
"Does that mean that we can't get fair jurors if the ethnic background does not breakdown to what it is in Detroit, no it doesn't," Roberts said.
McQuade says often prosecutors of diverse backgrounds are hired because they can provide different perspectives about people who are convicted. Having a diverse jury would also increase understanding about defendants. Judge Gerald Rosen said the jury system works better when everyone serves and the entire community is represented. He says discussions among jurors should include differing viewpoints.
"How do our clients feel when they come into a courtroom and don't see a community that's reflective of them, frankly they feel cheated," Judge Denise Page Hood said.
McQuade spends a lot of time trying to build the community's trust in law enforcement officials. She says that trust is undermined when a jury doesn't reflect the community.
There's concern that jury diversity could be an issue if the jury is overly reflective of the defendant standing trial. Judge Rosen says that's not true, and over the years he's spoken to hundreds of jurors who see the effects crime and drugs have on their communities.
"If you think they're going to be easier on minority defendants, I think that's not accurate," Rosen said. Pastor and Attorney Bertram Marks agreed.
Marks said people need to start looking at jury duty as a privilege. "It is a privilege and a right. Imagine if you were told you can't serve on the jury. When you serve on a jury, that is an excellent exercise in democracy," he said. McQuade says most jurors she's spoken to say their experience was rewarding.
Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab American News said according to a recent poll 64 percent of Americans don't trust Muslims. That could reflect a juror's judgment. "Lawyers have to address the jury and say that what you heard on television about Muslims is not true; it doesn't apply here," Siblani said.
He says some Muslim Americans have preferred to leave their fate in the hands of a judge rather than a jury because of the hate surrounding Muslim Americans.
Research expert hired to find solutions
A research expert was hired to find out what the issues are, and how to solve them. The expert determined the jury selection process does not exclude minorities, but rather the data shows that the high non-response rate in Wayne County from people who are summoned to jury duty is a major contributor to the under representation of minorities in jury pool. "There is a very, very high non-response rate," Rosen said. The non-response rate breaks down into two components. The first is the high non-delivery rate, and non-response rate. The expert conducted two mailings. In the first mailing 51 percent came back undeliverable, and 20 percent came back no response.
|Left: Michigan Chronicle Senior Editor and moderator Bankole Thompson, Federal Judge Denise Page Hood, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of MI Barbara McQuade and Federal Judge Victoria Roberts.|
"You have to get people to respond. Unless people fill out the questionaire and give it back nothing will change," said Siefer.
Additional factors that contribute to the issue are the high rate of felony convictions in Detroit, and the illiteracy rate.
People can't serve on a jury if they have been convicted of a felony, you're also disqualified if you can't read. Immigrants who can't read English, but are American citizens are also not eligable.
Increasing the amount jurors are paid each day is another possible factor that could sway more people. Jurors are paid $40 a day, and reimbursed for gas mileage. Rosen said the amount won't increase because of recent budget cuts.
Others are afraid their employers won't compensate them for their absence. Local courts have tried working with employers to sway them into encouraging jury duty participation from their employees. Rosen said legally employers are not allowed to penalize employees for taking time off work to participate in the process.
Currently public service announcements are being created to encourage people to participate in the process. Another underlying reason for ignoring the process is the mistrust that exists surrounding the legal system according to McQuade. The event was held by the Michigan Chronicle, the paper's senior editor Bankole Thompson served as the moderator.