Jury selection issues often come up in Dallas County, where the numerous felony courts are always busy trying serious cases. The Dallas Court of Appeals will resolve those issues. In October, a significant case involving improper jury selection was before the Court of Appeals in Houston. The Houston Court found that the State had engaged in purposeful discrimination during the jury selection process. As a result the defendant's controlled substance conviction was set aside, and a new trial was ordered.
The process of jury selection is called voir dire. During voir dire, the prosecution and the defense have a limited number of "strikes"--that is, each side can exclude certain individuals from serving on the jury. This policy has a number of useful functions, but it cannot be used as a pretext for purposeful discrimination.
In this case, the defendant was African-American, and the State struck two or three African-American citizens during voir dire. The defendant challenged these strikes, saying that the State had no reason other than purposeful discrimination to eliminate those individuals. The State countered that they struck those people after reviewing their responses to a questionnaire that potential jurors fill out, not for any discriminatory purposes.
After reviewing the trial record, the Court of Appeals concluded that the State's explanation for its striking of two or three African-American citizens was not genuine: their clear purpose was discrimination. When the Court compared the answers that the African-American citizens gave on the questionnaire to the answers given by Caucasian citizens, it found that they were virtually identical. Therefore, the State's explanation was merely a pretext for racial discrimination. The Court reversed the judgment of the trial court and ordered that a new trial take place.
Voir dire is an important part of a criminal prosecution, and it must be vigilantly guarded against abuse by the State. Despite years of efforts, affirmative efforts are still required to assure that racial discrimination has no place in our justice system.