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Michigan Prisoner Challenges Jury Selection Process

PLN rarely reports on criminal law cases, but when we think one will interest our readers we print it. Such is the case with an interesting legal struggle going on in Michigan. PLN reader Emmett Jones (see his article on page 1, The Unconstitutionality of Discriminatory Jury Selection) initiated a challenge to the Michigan state jury selection system that has rocked the courts.

Jones was convicted in 1988 of unarmed robbery by an all-white jury in Kalamazoo county. In 1992 he appealed his conviction and won a reversal because the trial judge failed to give proper instructions to Jones when he chose to represent himself. The state appealed and the case was sent to the state supreme court. Meanwhile, Jones started studying the law in earnest. He got a job in the prison law library so he could study more diligently. The time was well spent. In March of 1993 he filed suit in federal court under 42 USC §1983, §1985 and §1986. He named the circuit court judges in Kalamazoo county (among others) as defendants, claiming that they knowingly and intentionally rigged the jury selection process to exclude minorities from sitting on juries in criminal trials. The defendant judges, as a matter of course, claimed judicial immunity (everybody knows you can't sue a judge for his/her actions from the bench). The only problem is, the duties the judges perform while supervising the jury selection process are not protected because they fall outside of the scope of "actions from the bench." When the motion to dismiss failed on this point, the Michigan state judicial system realized Mr. Jones' suit represented a substantial threat. Coincidentally, Jones' world started to cave in.

Guards started shaking down his cell - up to six times in one day. Drugs were "discovered" in his cell, and he was removed from his job as law library clerk. He had never been beefed for drugs while incarcerated, had never failed a urinalysis test. The guard who wrote the infraction report turned out to have not been on duty the day he allegedly found the drugs. Jones filed suit. The guard named in the suit submitted an affidavit stating that he wrote the report based on what he was told to do by the Deputy Warden of the prison.

Jones had been communicating with the local media, and the story of his challenge to the jury selection system was starting to make a splash in the Michigan mainstream press. [PLN has copies of about a dozen such articles] The state of Michigan was beginning to feel the pressure. They buried Jones in the deepest, darkest hole they could find. In July of 1993, he was rousted out of his cell at 2:00 am and transported 700 miles to Baraga Max Facility, the most remote super-max facility in the state. He was kept in total isolation, allowed no phone calls. His mail was "lost". He was refused writing paper. Cells adjacent to his were even kept vacant! While in isolation, he was allowed out of his cell only for showers, but had to wear cuffs, belly chain, and a dog leash. On occasion, he was rushed and gassed Ninja-Turtle-goon-squad style. The Michigan state supreme court stayed the order of reversal of his conviction, claiming they needed extra time to examine the record to see if an "exception" should be made to the law requiring the trial judge to advise a defendant against representing himself at trial. The Michigan DOC was holding him in limbo, and the stay effectively put his appeal in limbo, too.

Emmett Jones showed in his suit that, "For the past 20 Years Michigan judges and jury commissioners have rigged (programmed) their jury computers to, en masse, exclude from jury duty black and minority citizens. Counties are divided into political districts. The computers are rigged to exclude from jury duty any persons living in certain of those districts. Each district excluded just so happens to be districts heavily populated with black or other minority citizens."

"Those blacks and minorities you occasionally see on juries are those blacks who live in the suburbs, or white neighborhoods, are usually conservative, and have a poor estimate of inner city blacks."

By combing through the county jury records, compiling demographic data, and meticulously plotting that data on maps that show county districts, Jones was able to substantiate his claim that the jury system is rigged. The county responded by appointing a commission to look into the allegations. After nine months of investigation, Ralph Chandler, head of the commission, said, "According to the 1990 Census about 40 percent of the black residents living in the county of Kalamazoo live in the city of Kalamazoo, and that this large segment of black persons have been excluded from jury panels in the circuit courts by unlawful patterns, policies and customs of court officials."

Chief Circuit Judge Philip Schaefer responded by ordering an examination of the current jury pool. Out of 25,000 names of Kalamazoo county residents in the jury pool, not a single Kalamazoo city resident had been allocated to a circuit court jury! Schaefer said, "Effective immediately, I have ordered the reallocation of those 25,000 so that we get a representative sampling in circuit court." But that doesn't change the fact that the system was rigged for over twenty years. Attorney James Ford said, "I think there's a major problem here. I think they may have to retry every criminal defendant they have tried in the last several years."

It is for that reason, the possibility that Jones' suit may result in hundreds (maybe thousands) of retrials that he was stuffed away in Baraga "Super Max". It's no coincidence that a large proportion of PLN readers are isolated in these so called "control units." A lot of our readers are also successful litigators. The kind of harassment that Emmet Jones suffered in this case is not unique. It's an occupational hazard for prisoner litigators. The ones who file silly, frivolous suits are less likely to be slammed into a super-max. The ones, like Emmett Jones, who file well crafted suits and who actually open a crack in the facade of state repression are the ones who suffer the most.

One more note about this case. I think Mr. Jones may be blind to the fact that the jury system was rigged to exclude people of class, not people of color. The county districts which were purposely excluded are districts where poor people live. I believe the ones who rigged the jury selection system are more concerned about excluding oppressed people in general (regardless of race) from sitting on juries. The courts are mainly a tool of the ruling class, designed to protect the lives and property of the "haves" from the "have nots". This method of enforcing systemic economic disparity works most effectively when you exclude the "have nots" from sitting on juries. As Jones himself noted, "Those blacks and minorities you occasionally see on juries are those blacks who live in the suburbs, or white neighborhoods, are usually conservative, and have a poor estimate of inner city blacks."

It is notable, though, that the law is also blind to class differences. It serves the ruling class to deny the existence of class conflict. As a way of diverting citizens' attention away from the fact that these class struggles exist, the ruling class perpetuates racism. Our collective consciousness is guided by the media, the law, and the government to see the struggle in terms of race differences. Racism, then, is a shield that protects the ruling class. That is why there is a rich body of law defining the issue of racial discrimination. It is because Jones used this body of law to substantiate his claims that he was able to succeed.

UPDATE: As of July 4, 1994, Emmett reported the following to PLN: "The pressure [on the courts] is finally having its effect. The courts have been ordering retrials, but only on a case by case basis. All the retrials have been based on the 6th amendment. The courts are still denying any 14th amendment violations as such would lead to hundreds or thousands of retrials. They deny that the system intentionally discriminates, or had a disproportionate effect."

Emmett also reports that the increased media attention caused the state supreme court to finally rule on his original appeal. He was sent back to Kalamazoo county as a pre-trial detainee, and has been released on bail pending a retrial. His July 4 letter closes with, "The article in Prison Legal News should help to keep the heat on. I don't think that Michigan is the only state to rig its jury computers."

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