Washington D.C. Superior Court Comes Under Fire for Potential Racial Discrimination in Juror Background Checks

By Michael Klazema on 12/12/2013

A team of Washington D.C. prosecutors faced the scrutiny of Superior Court judge recently over its policies regarding the screening of potential jurors. The jury selection in question was meant for a high-profile gang violence trial, and the prosecutors claim that they were attempting to determine whether or not certain potential jurors had lied to the city’s Superior Court about previous criminal record information or arrest history. The judge was suspicious about the background checks, seeing as most of them were directed toward potential jurors with African American ethnicity.

Washington D.C. law dictates that those with felony convictions on their records are not permitted to serve on court juries in the district until 10 years have passed since the completion of all sentencing mandates. In other words, in order to be eligible for jury duty, a Washington D.C. resident cannot have served prison time or completed a probation or parole period at any time in the past decade.

With that law in mind, prosecutors were trying to determine whether or not certain potential jurors in this particular gang-related case were indeed permitted to serve on a jury. Of 60 potential jurors, prosecutors originally ran background checks on 18 of them – 13 of whom were African Americans.

Lynn Leibovitz, the Washington D.C. Superior Court judge overseeing the case, had no problem with prosecutors looking into the backgrounds of potential jurors, but didn’t like that particular racially-skewed statistic. She questioned whether or not the background checks were “selective as to race,” and ordered prosecutors to correct the inequity by running background checks on the remaining 42 members of the potential juror pool.

Prosecutors insisted that the racially-skewed nature of their background checks had been entirely coincidental. Instead, Emily Miller, one of the prosecuting attorneys in the case, said that the prosecution had either recognized “lifelong D.C. residents” who had lied on their court forms about a former criminal involvement, or had some sort of “instinct or judgment” on a potential juror that they felt merited a closer look in the form of a criminal background check.

Ultimately, none of the jurors had felony convictions – and could therefore not be automatically barred from participating in the case – but some had arrests for a range of colorful alleged crimes, from prostitution to car jacking. While the EEOC insists that arrests not be taken into account for employment screening, jury selectors are not bound by the same regulations, and prosecutors chose to remove numerous jurors from the pool as a result of their arrest histories.

Leibovitz ended up clearing the prosecutors of any suspicion of discrimination, after the office published a statement explaining their background check policies and their instincts on certain would-be jurors. However, the judge did caution prosecutors to be more careful in choosing who to screen and who to leave alone.


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