An Ohio murder case has exposed a new tactic that prosecutors are using to disqualify potential jurors -- the use of a federal criminal records database to run background checks.
Timothy Jordan is an African-American who was charged with aggravated murder in the April 2002 shooting of RaeMone Williams. When he went to trial in November 2004, his jury pool included four prospective African-American jurors. Jordan's attorney, Robert Ranz, charged that prosecutors had checked the background records of three of the four prospective black jurors based on their responses to questions during voir dire. After learning that two of those jurors had been untruthful about their criminal histories, the state exercised peremptory challenges to remove them from the jury pool.
Ranz, a Cincinnati solo practitioner, alleged that prosecutors had deliberately checked the black jurors in an effort to disqualify them, because the defendant was also black. He moved for a mistrial. The assistant prosecutor, Judith Mullen, said she used the database because she had "reason to believe" that some of the jurors had lied about their criminal backgrounds. "It's not a routine thing; there is no office policy," she stated.
Prosecutors searched the jurors' criminal history using the Regional Crime Information Center (RCIC) and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a national database available to law enforcement officials, including prosecutors. According to Ranz, defense attorneys are not granted access to such records, and prosecutors are not required to alert the defense when they are running background checks on prospective jurors.
The frequency of prosecutors' use of background checks as a method to disqualify prospective jurors is unknown by defense attorneys. "We had always heard rumors, but never confirmation until now," said Martin Pinales, vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "But it does happen, and it may be a frequent practice."
Pinales feared the practice could have a "chilling effect" on minorities desiring to serve on juries.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Mack Schweikert denied Ranz's motion for a mistrial, stating the prosecutor's actions were based on "race-neutral reasons," but noted, "It certainly would have been less controversial if the state made their disclosure immediately."
Jordan was subsequently convicted of murder. His conviction was upheld on appeal on June 2, 2006, with the state appellate court finding that he had failed to demonstrate a race-based violation under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712 (1986). See: Ohio v. Jordan, 167 Ohio App.3d 157, 854 N.E.2d 520 (Ohio App. 1 Dist., 2006), petition for review denied.
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