Under an appellate court ruling aimed at making sure jury pools reflect the racial diversity of a community, prospective jurors at the Torrance and Santa Monica courthouses will now be summoned from as far as 20 miles away.
The ruling, which challenges Los Angeles County's longstanding policy of sending jurors to the courthouse closest to their homes, is expected to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, prosecutors and judges in Torrance and Santa Monica say the March 4 ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles has caused delays in some criminal trials as officials strive to ensure that the composition of jury pools is in accordance with the ruling. In two Torrance cases, mistrials have been declared as a result of the ruling.
Trials are expected to resume at a normal pace Monday at Torrance and the following Monday in Santa Monica when new jury pools based on the 20-mile ruling are assigned to the courthouses.
The appellate court's ruling stems from the trial in Santa Monica Superior Court of Edward C. Williams, a black man charged with the 1980 murder of a Westside businessman. During jury selection, Williams' attorney, Madelynn Kopple, asserted that there were too few blacks in the jury pool for her client to receive a fair trial. She requested that the case be transferred to another court where there were more blacks available.
"When I looked around the courtroom I saw very few black faces, and so did my client," Kopple said in an interview last week. "It was not a very optimistic view."
The court denied Kopple's request, and she took the issue to the appellate court. That court also refused to transfer the trial, but took issue with the county's practice of assigning jurors to the courthouse closest to their homes. The court, in essence, ruled that jurors should be selected from a 20-mile radius around a courthouse to ensure a proper cross-section of the community is represented on jury pools. Under state law, there is a 20-mile limit on the distance a juror in Los Angeles County is required to travel from his home to court.
The court also ruled that a separate hearing should be held to determine if blacks are under represented on jury pools in Santa Monica in relation to the black population in a 20-mile radius around the courthouse. A hearing on that matter has been set for May 6. Williams' trial was postponed until after the hearing is completed.
Ray Arce, director of the juror services division of the Los Angeles Superior Court, said the appellate court ruling could eventually affect the way the county typically assigns prospective jurors at more than 30 superior and municipal courts. Up to now, however, only judges in Torrance and Santa Monica have ordered the county to conform to the appellate court ruling.
Arce said prospective jurors are selected from lists of registered voters, as well as lists of people who have driver's licenses or identification cards from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
At present, the names of prospective jurors, as well as the names of courts needing jurors, are processed simultaneously by a computer, with jurors being assigned whenever possible to the court closest to their home, he said. County surveys indicate the average distance a juror now travels from his home to court is 10 miles.
However, to comply with the appellate court ruling, Arce said, courts that would compete with Torrance for jurors because of overlapping territories will not be processed by the computer at the same time. Hence, any person eligible to serve as a juror and who lives within a 20-mile radius of the Torrance courthouse could be summoned to appear there. The same will hold true for Santa Monica, he said.
Arce said that if the 20-mile radius method for selecting jurors is upheld by the state Supreme Court and extended countywide, a person residing in Torrance could be summoned to appear for jury duty at any of more than a dozen county courthouses stretching from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach.
Could Serve More Often
Those living in Santa Monica could find themselves commuting downtown or to the San Fernando Valley or the South Bay to serve as jurors.
At the same time, both Arce and Assistant Dist. Atty. Curt Livesay said that the appellate court's ruling could mean that people living within 20 miles of more than one courthouse could be called upon to serve as jurors more often than others. For example, Arce said, Compton residents live within 20 miles of 23 courthouses, while those in the Antelope Valley live with 20 miles of only one courthouse.
Largely because of that possibility, Livesay said, the district attorney's office will ask the state Supreme Court to overturn the appellate court ruling. "It will be an inordinate demand for jurors who happen to live in an area with three or four overlying courthouses," he said.
The district attorney's office has until April 14 to appeal the appellate court's decision.
May Change Policy
Arce said that state law prohibits a person from being called to serve on a jury more than once a year, but the Los Angeles Superior Court has its own policy extending the time period to two years--a policy that the court could be forced to abandon if the appellate court's decision stands.
Despite the potential drawbacks voiced by Arce and Livesay, Torrance Superior Court Judge Cecil J. Mills, who issued the order requiring the county to apply the ruling to the Torrance court, said he believes that court's decision was "absolutely correct." The judge said he believes the county's present procedures in assigning jurors to courts closest to their homes causes a lower proportion of blacks and Latinos to be picked for some jury pools.
"We cannot accommodate folks to the detriment of defendants who have a right to a fair trial," Mills said.
Arce said that based on 1980 census figures--the latest period for which figures are available--the percentage of whites living within a 20-mile radius of the Torrance courthouse is 48.1%, compared to 23% for blacks, 22.1% for Latinos and 6.8% for all other races. The county's own surveys indicate that, on the average, blacks compose from 2% to 6% of those serving on jury pools at the courthouse.
In Santa Monica, the same census found that 56% of those living within 20 miles of that county courthouse are white, 18.7% are black, 17.3% Latino and 7.7% other races. On the average, blacks compose between 3% and 10% of that court's jury pools, according to county studies.
Since the court ruling, Mills said mistrials have been declared in a murder case and a child molestation case at the request of defense attorneys who believed the present jury pool did not represent an adequate cross-section of people. Jurors were being selected at the time in both trials, he said.
In the murder case, forms completed by prospective jurors indicated that only one was black, eight were Latino and 122 were white, and the farthest that any juror had to travel from his or her home to the courthouse was 13 miles. At a hearing to determine whether the motion by the defense to declare a mistrial should be granted, Arce testified that on two days selected at random, only 3.1% and 3.2% of the prospective jurors at Torrance were black.
Additionally, Mills said, at least six criminal trials have been postponed until a new jury pool conforming to the appellate court ruling is assigned to the courthouse, and defendants have been given the choice of delaying their cases until a jury pool selected by the new procedure arrived, or waiving their rights to such a pool. At least seven defendants have signed such waivers, he said.
In Santa Monica, prosecutors and judges say the appellate court decision has had less of an impact. Superior Court Judge Robert Thomas said only two waivers have been signed by defendants, and the court has not had to grant any mistrials or continuances.
However, in two criminal cases, the court requested that the county send jurors who had been assigned to the central court in Los Angeles to Santa Monica to ensure that a proper jury pool was used. One of those cases--a murder case--was delayed until the last day the district attorney's office had to either begin proceedings or dismiss charges against the defendant while the prosecutor waited for jurors from downtown to arrive.