Target 8: Does race affect a jury’s decision?

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A man who was convicted of murder by an all-white jury in 1993 and took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court told Target 8 he is serving a life term because he wasn’t granted a jury of his peers.

Target 8 found minorities are underrepresented in West Michigan juries by comparing last year’s court data from Kent and Kalamazoo counties to the most recent U.S. Census data. Some legal experts believe minority under-representation on juries is a violation of the U.S. Constitution and denies a defendant a fair trial.

“You want a jury that is diverse, you want a jury that is a true cross-section of the community. You don’t want any one sector to be overrepresented where everyone thinks alike, and race specifically matters in that regard,” said Anthony Greene, a defense attorney in Grand Rapids.

Diapolis Smith, 46, is serving a life term in prison for the shooting death of Christopher Rumbley. Rumbley was shot and killed in November 1991 after a bar fight at So So’s Lounge, which was located on the southeast corner of S. Division Avenue and Wealthy Street.

Smith’s trial began in 1993 when he was 25 years old. Smith, who identifies as black, challenged the jury selection system before his trial. He claimed African-American jurors were systematically excluded from the jury, which violated his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.

“When I went to trial, I was in front of an all-white jury,” said Smith in a phone interview with Target 8.

According to court documents outlining the case, 37 witnesses who had been at So So’s Lounge, including Smith, testified at the trial before an all-white jury. Of those, two testified that Smith fired the gun. Five testified that the shooter was not Smith and the remainder made no identifications of the shooter.

Smith was convicted of second-degree murder and possession of a firearm during a felony. He was sentenced to serve life in prison with the possibility of parole.

“They weren’t from my environment. They didn’t understand me. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict me. I just believe it was because it was an all-white jury that they convicted me,” Smith said.

Smith appealed his conviction based on the racial makeup of his jury. His appeal made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2010, the justices ruled Smith should not get a new trial.

“In no state, form or fashion do I support or condone any individual running around in society lawlessly. If you are legally arrested and given a fair trial, which is something I clearly didn’t have, you should be punished according to the law. The process that I experienced at my trial by a so-called jury of my peers was totally unfair and a clear violation of our Constitution, which resulted in me being denied a fair jury trial,” Smith said in a phone interview.

Tonya Krause-Phelan did not represent Smith, but says she represented many others like him when she served as a defense attorney.

“From a defendant’s perspective who’s a minority looking at an all-Caucasian jury, to that defendant, it looks like unfairness and it feels like unfairness,” Krause-Phelan said.

That look and feel is what Kent County Chief Judge Donald Johnston believes leads to problems when people of color aren’t present on a jury.

“I think people go back to the communities and say, ‘We had a stacked deck, we didn’t have a fair shake.’ I think it creates disrespect for the system of justice and law and order generally,” Johnston said. “Whereas I think if people feel they’re being treated fairly and feel the system around them is being fair to all those they see coming into it, they’re likely to go back and say. ‘You know this is a good system, it’s worthy of our support, we should cooperate with authorities, we should be supportive of the law enforcement mechanism and the justice system in the community which we are a part of.'”

But Johnston believes jurors base their decisions on evidence and not race.

“In other words, I don’t think that black or Hispanic or white jurors are going to decide differently on a case because of their racial background,” he said. “On the other hand, we have significant numbers of minorities who are charged with crimes that appear in the courts and I think it’s important from their perspective to see their particular ethnicity represented on the jury pool, not because I think the system without it is unfair, but because I’m concerned that those individuals may perceive it as being unfair, and I think that the court system must not only do justice in the community, but it must be seen and perceived as doing justice. We want the members of the community to believe and feel that this is truly a just and fair system and one of the ways you do that is by having broad representation on jury pools.”

There aren’t a lot of recent studies on whether a jury’s racial composition makes a difference in their decision, but a 2012 Duke University study found all-white jury pools in Florida convicted African-American defendants 16 percent more often than white defendants between the years of 2000 and 2010. That percentage was eliminated when at least one member of the jury pool was African American.

“What is relevant and important in one community may not be relevant in another community, and those attitudes and perspectives … plays a huge part in the way a jury will listen to the facts of a case and decide the facts of a case,” Krause-Phelan said.

Krause-Phelan said diverse juries bring different ideas, viewpoints and life experiences and help jurors separate any bias they may have when reaching a verdict.

“No jurisdiction wants to admit they have a problem surrounding race. I think it’s also a problem because people want to be sensitive and delicate about racial issues and now, in … the last 6 months for example with everything that we’ve had going on with race issues and police conduct, it’s just a very raw, sensitive subject. But the fact of the matter is the criminal justice system is filled with raw, sensitive cases. Felony cases by and large are very emotional. They’re very damaging with the things that have been done to victims. We need to be upfront and honest about what’s happening in these trials,” Krause-Phelan said.

Smith told Target 8 that he plans to continue fighting his case and still wants to be granted another trial.

“All I’m asking for is a second chance at life. Everybody deserves a second chance. A fair trial would have been acceptable, but everybody deserves a second chance,” he said.

There is legislation in the Michigan House that aims to broaden the base of jury pools in the state. The bills would add voter registration lists and the names of people who file for income tax. Supporters of the bills say they would add more diversity to the selection pool.

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