Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

An appellate court halted an attempted murder trial in New Orleans during jury selection on Wednesday so it can consider whether or not the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court has been excluding individuals with felony convictions from jury service in violation of a state law that came into effect in August of 2021.

A three judge panel on the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal issued a stay in the trial of Samuel Preston, who was charged with attempted murder and illegal possession of a firearm last year, after lawyers for Preston with the Orleans Public Defenders Office argued in a writ that the jury pool in his case was “improperly selected and unrepresentative.”

Prior to 2021, anyone with a felony conviction in Louisiana was barred from jury service, unless they had received a pardon from the governor. But that year the Louisiana legislature passed changes to the law to allow anyone with a felony conviction who has been off probation or parole for five years and is not under indictment to serve on a jury. 

Lawyers for Preston say that despite the new law, the New Orleans criminal court is continuing to send out jury summons that indicate all individuals with felony convictions are disqualified for jury service. In addition, jurors confirm their eligibility through an online portal that asks if they have prior felony convictions, but does not provide any follow-up to determine whether or not they qualify under the new law. 

Given the “outdated and incorrect” jury summons process, attorneys for Preston said that he is being denied his due process rights. 

The objections to the summons process echo those in a letter the criminal justice advocacy organization Voice of the Experienced sent last week to the court. 

In the writ to the 4th Circuit, lawyers argued that the trial judge, Rhonda Goode-Douglass, should have granted their request for a new jury pool, or at the very least held an evidentiary hearing to determine “the scope and causes” of the systemic exclusion of people with felony convictions. 

They said that prosecutors did not present any evidence or arguments that people with felony convictions were not being excluded in violation of state law but instead “relied on improper legal standards.”

“Notably, the State presented no evidence indicating that the proper, current qualifications laws have been followed and made no arguments contesting Mr. Preston’s due process right to a prosecution conducted in compliance with law,” lawyers for Preston wrote.

A spokesperson for Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams did not immediately respond to request for comment. 

The Fourth Circuit has given Goode-Douglass until noon on Thursday to explain her reasoning for denying Preston’s lawyers’ objections to the jury summons process. 

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the proper charges in the case. (Jan. 19, 2023)

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...