Excluded From the Jury Box

The state appellate court recently reversed the murder conviction of a Latino man because all prospective Latino jurors were excluded from the jury by legal challenges from the prosecutor. The ruling has caused controversy, but it should have surprised no one.

The issue of representative juries in Orange County has been raised before. In 1984, an attorney defending a black man charged with murdering a white businesswoman criticized the lack of potential black jurors during the jury selection process. He contended that past studies showed that his client's chances of conviction increased greatly when there was a white victim, a black defendant and an all-white jury.

In 1985, the Orange County public defender's office argued during a death penalty retrial that the Latino defendant couldn't get a fair retrial because Latinos are under-represented on Orange County juries.

The 4th District Court of Appeal, in a case involving Gilbert Mora, 42, who speaks no English, concluded that the deputy district attorney who challenged and excluded from Mora's jury all five Latinos on the prospective panel failed to establish that any of them were rejected "for a reason other than an impermissible group bias against Latinos."

It's one thing for the system to be thrown out of balance and defendants to feel denied a jury of their peers because there simply aren't as many minorities represented in the jury pool as there may be minority defendants facing trial. But that's far different from having attorneys intentionally screening minorities out of the jury box. The higher courts that monitor trial court proceedings must vigorously guard against such courtroom discrimination.

Aside from the obvious impact on the Mora murder case, the appellate court ruling does two necessary things. It puts attorneys and judges on notice that systematically excluding minorities from jury panels will not be tolerated. And it sends a message to minorities that the legal system fully intends to protect their constitutional right to a fair and impartial trial.

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