SPECIAL REPORT: Black defendants, White juries - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

SPECIAL REPORT: Black defendants, White juries

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COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - It was a high profile criminal trial - that resulted in a hung jury.

Chadbourn Town Manager Stevie Cox was on trial last month in Columbus County - accused of impersonating a police officer. Cox is African-American. The jury that failed to reach a consensus had 8 white members and 4 minorities.

Although the jury foreman said the defendants' race never came up during deliberations, it is interesting to note that our courthouse sources say all 4 of the minority jurors believed Cox to be innocent. WECT spoke to some of those jurors after the trial.

Pamela Mitchel, one of the minority jurors, told us why she didn't think Cox was guilty: "I think he was truthful, he said everything that happened, he gave his license, registration, and the badge, but he did not impersonate Chief Shaw."

But Mitchel's fellow juror, Donald Wise, who is white, saw things differently. "I personally would take the side of the officer, as to his seeing a badge."

Local defense attorneys say the racial balance of a jury can make all the difference in determining the outcome of a trial. But attorneys in Wilmington say seating a jury that's racially diverse can be next to impossible.

Lawrence Shotwell has been practicing law in Southeastern North Carolina for 15 years. In that time, he says he's had a lot of clients who were young, African-American men. But he says his juries rarely meet the same profile. "I just cannot remember a jury trial where I have had more than 2 black jurors on my jury….and I would say the majority of my jury panels are all white."

So why does that matter? In an ideal world, it wouldn't. In Shotwell's experience, however, people of the same race and socio-economic status of the defendant are much more likely to be sympathetic jurors.

New Hanover County's Chief District Court Judge, J. Corpening, says it's a valid point, but how jury pools are selected is out of his control. "Trying to have racial balance in jury pools is an important issue. How we bring jurors here is set by statute, set by law, and the two pools that we draw from are DMV records and voter registration records. It's all done by computer and it's all random."

About 15% of people in New Hanover County are African American, but data from the Board of Elections and DMV shows that African-Americans in New Hanover County are less likely than their white counterparts to be registered to vote, or licensed to drive.

That means African Americans are statistically less likely to be summoned for jury duty. Even if they are summoned - there's another big factor at play. Who actually shows up at the courthouse?

A new state law prohibits the release of demographic information about jurors. So all we have to go by are the observations of people at the courthouse.

Shotwell says from what he has seen, there aren't many African-Americans in the average jury pool.

"If I was a 22 year old black male looking at 15 - 20 years, and I look across that table and see 12 older looking conservative white folks, I'd be terrified too."

Besides being largely white, Shotwell says his typical jury is also middle to upper class. He says those jurors tend to have different life experience, and different perceptions of law enforcement than his clients, who often grew up in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

So what can be done to even the playing field? Judge Corpening says people are rarely held in contempt of court for failing to show up for jury duty. The clerk of court says on occasion an attorney will ask for and receive an entire new jury pool if the existing jury pool is too white. But for folks at home, especially minorities, this may be another reason to take your jury summons seriously.

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