Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: In Holtzclaw case, we can only hope the jury is impartial

Many of us have seen that dreaded jury duty letter sit in the pile of mail on our countertops, waiting to be answered. We like to hope that it will go away. Even Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon hoped to be turned away from her call to action when she dressed up as Princess Leia on the popular TV sitcom “30 Rock.” To us, a call to report to jury duty is a joke.

For law professionals, however, jury duty is a serious matter. In 1980, practicing attorney Herald Fahringer wrote: “If a lawyer has a difficult case, but succeeds in obtaining a jury sympathetic with his client’s cause, the chances of winning improve substantially … counsel’s ability to select a favorable jury in a criminal case is of paramount importance.”

It would seem that the defense team of Daniel Holtzclaw — an Oklahoma police officer who faces 36 charges “including rape, sexual battery, stalking, and indecent exposure” for allgedly having sexually assaulted and raped 13 black women — has its “favorable jury” stacked up nicely.

After opening statements on Tuesday, Oklahoma local news network KOCO reporter Patricia Santos tweeted a statement saying the jury for Holtzclaw’s case will be comprised of 8 men, 4 women and no African-Americans. She also tweeted that “three black men were eliminated as potential jurors,” BuzzFeed reported.

But according to the Oklahoma County court clerk’s office, “Oklahoma law states that all citizens of the United States … are competent jururs to serve on all grand and petit juries within their counties,” with an exception for citizens over the age of 70 who have served on a jury in the state within the last 5 calendar years.

Furthermore, those who cannot serve as jurors include legislators, sheriffs or deputy sheriffs, licensed attorneys, jailers or law enforcement officers, or “persons who have been convicted of any felony, or who have served a term of imprisonment in any penitentiary, state or federal, for the commission of a felony; provided, any such citizen convicted, who has been fully restored to his or her civil rights, shall be eligible to serve as a juror.”

We don’t, then, have an answer as to why three black potential jurors were turned away. But we do know these facts, and we realize that all-white juries in the past have lead to unfair and biased jury deliberations. Yet in the 1986 Batson v. Kentucky case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that excluding jurors from service solely based on their race violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In a 2010 report, the Equal Justice Initiative stated, “racially biased use of peremptory strikes and illegal racial discrimination in jury selection remains widespread, particularly in criminal cases and capital cases.” Having interviewed more than 100 African-American “citizens who were excluded from jury service based on race and reviewed hundreds of court documents and records,” EJI found that prosecutors “have struck African Americans from jury service because they appeared to have ‘low intelligence,’ wore eyeglasses, walked in a certain way, dyed their hair…”

Regardless of the fact that Holtzclaw’s defense team has allegedly referred to him as an “all American good guy,” their primary stance is that the 13 women he assaulted were not of good standing. They had “street smarts like you can’t even imagine,” ABC cited. In other words, these women were of poor character, and therefore took just as much advantage of Holtzclaw as he did of them. This is the implication, anyway.

While this is clearly victim blaming, let us move on and focus on the fact that Holtzclaw facing an all-white jury certainly poses a lot of problems, one of which concerns empathy. The jury in this case and in others like it may feel as though the black victims are “other” from them, and therefore they could have a harder time seeing the victims’ side. There’s undeniably an element here of having the ability to better relate to your own perceived race. Arguably, an all-white jury may fail to truly understand the day-to-day oppression and persecution that people of color — specifically, women of color — face.

But the fact is, if our judicial system were perfect, not a single jury member would show any sort of empathy on either side of the case. A juror’s primary duty is to listen to the arguments presented to them by both sides and make impartial decision based on facts and proof. But realistically, we can’t expect all people to be this way — sometimes, our human nature gets in the way. In this case, the only effective alternative is to expect that the group chosen will be diverse enough to consider various opinions.

We undoubtedly have to address, then, questions of jury impartiality. Any juror of any race, creed, orientation, gender or otherwise ought to understand their place in the legal system and the importance of maintaining impartiality in the face of emotional and sometimes controversial circumstances. But this sort of impartiality isn’t altogether realistic, which is why it is so important that we take this specific case as an opportunity to reevaluate our jury selection process.

Understanding that the population in Oklahoma is virtually 75 percent white and about 8 percent black, according to the 2014 Census report, the racial component stands out more in this case because all of the woman this man assaulted were black. If Holtzclaw was able to choose victims from that 7 percent of the population, the court could have chosen jurors from it, too.

How could this situation have played out if Holtzclaw himself were black? Arguably, these women might have ventured that a white cop might be treated differently in court than black women. Consider if the roles were reversed even further: if a black man were accused of raping 13 white women and an all black jury were selected, a good percentage of our country would be storming down the court house.

In a perfect world, any case that dealt so heavily with race would have a racially diverse jury. That being said, it would be somewhat odd to craft a jury based on race, even if it were 50 percent white and 50 percent black. Even if we were to inflict quotas or the like into our judicial system, potential jurors are not guaranteed to have diverse opinions or perceptions.

What matters most here is the importance of some form of impartial representation for all parties involved in a trial of any nature, whether it be for a parking ticket or for a horrific case such as this.

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