NEW ORLEANS — Officials at a criminal justice center in New Orleans announced last week that they plan to sue the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office for discriminating against black jurors.
Jim Craig, co-director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, alleges that the district attorney in the First Judicial District of Louisiana picks and chooses members of the public to impanel criminal trial juries that are predominately white, a practice known as “blackstriking.”
“While there may or may not be other issues with the jury selection in the First Judicial District, our investigation, and therefore lawsuit, focuses on the actions of prosecutors in using their peremptory challenges in criminal trials,” Craig recently told the Louisiana Record.
Peremptory challenges are used by attorneys to exclude potential jurors without the need for any reason or explanation, unless the opposing party presents a prima facie argument that the exclusion was based on gender or ethnicity prejudices.
The investigation was based on data collected by Reprieve Australia, an Australian organization that provides legal and humanitarian assistance to those facing the death penalty. The organization collected data on Caddo Parish because it leads the nation in death sentences.
The justice center then worked with law professors at Northwestern University in Chicago to analyze the data, which revealed that Caddo prosecutors excluded qualified black jurors three times more often than they excluded non-blacks – black potential jurors were excluded at a rate of 46 percent, while non-black potential jurors only at a rate of 15 percent.
Reprieve Australia said in a press release that Caddo jurors with fewer than three African-Americans have never acquitted a defendant, which gives prosecuting attorneys incentive to “whitewash” juries.
Craig said there were no other statistical variables that could account for the district’s rate of removing black jurors from the panel.
Although the announcement of the intent to sue came only 10 days before the election of a new district attorney for the parish, Craig said the center has been gathering data on the issue since before the death of Charles Scott, the former district attorney who died of heart failure in April.
“The problems identified by our investigation and research are not limited to any particular incumbent of the position of district attorney," Craig said. "It is an office-wide culture that predates Mr. Scott’s tenure.”
One of the prosecutors mentioned in the study is Dhu Thompson, a candidate in the runoff election that will determine Caddo’s next district attorney on Nov. 21. The study showed that Thompson had the fourth highest rate among studied prosecutors for rejecting potential black jurors.
James E. Stewart, a retired appellate court judge, is Thompson’s opponent. If elected, Stewart could become the first African American to hold the office of district attorney in Caddo Parish.
In response, Thompson questioned the timing of the investigation’s announcement. He criticized the justice center for dropping the intention to sue without first going through the courts, or letting the DA’s office respond, with only 10 days before the election.
Craig maintains, however, that the suit is not directed at any particular candidate and is meant solely to address the alleged civil rights violations that have been occurring for years.
“In the absence of concrete, specific changes in the office’s culture and approach to jury selection, this practice will continue under the administration of either of the two final candidates for district attorney," Craig said. “For this reason, no matter who prevails in the special election this month, the MacArthur Justice Center will proceed with the federal civil rights lawsuit that we are preparing to file.”
Craig said his office is still “working out the details” of the suit.
The full study released by Reprieve Australia on Caddo Parish can be found here.