by Kevin W. Bliss
January 23, 2023, the Orleans Parish criminal court system halted all active jury trials until further information concerning the summons prices for jury selection could be supplied to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in response to allegations that the system precluded people with felony convictions from serving in violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury of one’s peers.
The Louisiana Legislature passed a bill in 2021 which allowed ex-offenders to serve on juries as long as it has been at least five years since the completion of their sentence including any probation or parole associated with the commitment, and the individual was not currently under indictment. The bill was signed into law by Governor John Bel Edwards and became effective August 1, 2021.
Yet to date, summonses sent to prospective jurors still read that felony convictions are grounds for being barred from serving on juries. And, that online questionnaires discussed felony convictions but not sentence or probation/parole completion dates.
Emily Posner, lawyer for the Voice of the Experienced (“VOTE”) received a letter from Orleans Parish Chief Judge Robin Pittman stating all venires for jury selection through February would be deferred, allowing the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals the opportunity to work through the issues surrounding the process.
VOTE is an advocacy group primarily composed of ex-offenders who have raised concerns over this unfairness of the jury selection process. “What the court did today was recognize an oversight,” said VOTE founder and executive director, Norris Henderson. “It is not about who’s right, but what’s right, and they need to get these juries right so people can get truly fair trials for once in the state of Louisiana.”
Recent filings have brought the issue to the forefront of the courts. Murder suspect Samuel Preston filed a motion earlier this month stating his jury had been improperly empaneled because ex-offenders had been excluded from the pool. Michael Shorts filed a similar motion concerning his second-degree murder conviction of July, 2022. He has requested his conviction be overturned and a new trial set empaneling an impartial jury.
Preston also argued that many people with felony convictions have been permanently purged from venire selection, and simply changing the language on the summonses or the online questionnaire would not rectify the problem.
The District Attorney’s Office said its primary concern was to the victims and witnesses it represented. “Our office will continue to do all we can to bring justice to families with all due speed throughout this temporary pause,” stated its spokesperson.
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