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COUNTYWIDE : Grand Jury to Stress Racial Diversity

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Acknowledging complaints about the lack of diversity on the Orange County Grand Jury, court officials on Tuesday announced the largest campaign ever to recruit residents from all racial backgrounds.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday also declared November “Grand Jury Awareness Month” to mark the court’s efforts to increase public understanding of the grand jury work and highlight the importance of community participation.

“This is an effort on the court’s part to reflect the diversity in Orange County,” said Presiding Judge Donald E. Smallwood of Orange County Superior Court.

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Latino-rights advocates and others have criticized the grand jury as lacking minority representation, especially in the wake of a report by the past grand jury that blamed illegal immigration for many of society’s ills. A prominent Orange County defense attorney has called the jury selection process discriminatory and is seeking to overturn a murder indictment handed down by the 1992-93 panel.

“We listened, we heard and we’re acting,” said Bahia Wilson, chairwoman of the 1993-94 grand jury’s Special Issues Committee. Changes will include greater cooperation with more than 20 organizations representing minorities in Orange County, she said.

Other improvements: Grand jury brochures will be printed in Spanish and Vietnamese; a grand jury hot line will handle application requests; thousands of posters and flyers will be handed out and volunteer speakers are available to discuss the grand jury with community groups.

Court officials are also working with local colleges to recruit students--possibly for credit--and are hoping that some employers will sponsor grand jurors.

Wilson said 3,500 applications were sent out last year. Only 157 completed forms were returned.

“That’s a dismal, dismal response,” Wilson said. Greater public awareness and community efforts should help reverse that trend, she said. “Anyone who wants to make a difference--and you can make a difference--should apply.”

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Applications are available by calling (714) 834-6747. Grand jurors must be at least 18 and fluent in English. The grand jury meets up to five days a week for a full year. Jurors are paid $25 a day.

The issue of juror diversity has also been raised locally at the federal level, where several criminal trials have been placed on hold as federal Orange County defense attorneys challenge a system they believe limits minorities in the jury pool.--RENE LYNCH

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