After halting a New Orleans trial during jury selection on Wednesday, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal has now ordered an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge to hold a hearing on whether or not the court has been illegally excluding people with prior felony convictions from serving on juries for the last year and a half. 

The result of the hearing, which will likely take place on Monday, has the potential to not only impact how jurors are summoned going forward, but could also call into question the results of dozens of jury trials that have taken place since August of 2021. 

Lawyers for Samuel Preston, who is facing trial on charges of attempted murder and illegal possession of a firearm, argued this week that the jury summons process in Orleans Parish is continuing to exclude all jurors with prior felony convictions, despite a state law that was passed in 2021 that allows individuals with a felony conviction to serve on juries if they have been off of probation or parole for at least 5 years and are not under indictment.

The challenge came after an advocacy organization, Voice of the Experienced, expressed concerns about the summons process in a letter to criminal court judges last week, noting that the qualifications listed on recent summons sent to prospective jurors were not updated to reflect current state law and still suggest that no one with a felony conviction can serve on a jury. 

In addition, a questionnaire that prospective jurors are supposed to fill out asks if they have ever been convicted of a felony but does not inquire about any additional information to determine when that person may be eligible under state law. 

Lawyers for Preston argued that the Orleans Parish Criminal Court’s “outdated and incorrect” juror summons process violated his due process rights that require his prosecution to be “conducted in compliance with the laws of the State of Louisiana.” They also argue that it violated his Sixth Amendment right to a trial before an impartial jury, which must be drawn from a “representative cross-section of the community” and must not “systematically exclude distinct groups in the community.” 

Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judge Rhonda Goode-Douglass, of Section E, denied Preston’s challenge and declined to grant an evidentiary hearing on the issue prior to the start of jury selection in his trial. But in response to an emergency writ filed by Preston’s lawyers, the Fourth Circuit Court granted a stay on Wednesday afternoon, and on Thursday ordered Goode-Douglass to hold the evidentiary hearing on or before Monday, January 23.

‘Calls into question the validity of any jury trial held over the past 16 months’

Preston’s is not the only case where the juror summons process is being challenged. 

Michael Shorts, who was convicted of second degree murder and obstruction of justice in July of last year, filed a motion for a new trial earlier this week citing the jury summons process, among other issues with his case. Due to the flaws outlined by VOTE, “otherwise-qualified jurors with felony convictions were ‘never given an opportunity to serve,’ in violation of Mr. Shorts’ constitutional rights,” lawyers for Shorts wrote. 

The judge in Shorts’ case, Laurie White, set an evidentiary hearing for Feb. 1 on the issue, according to a lawyer representing him.

The outcomes of the hearings in both Preston and Shorts cases have the potential to impact dozens of cases that have been tried in New Orleans criminal court since the law went into effect. In their letter, VOTE argued that because the summons process appears to have been flawed since the law went into effect, “it calls into question the validity of any jury trial held over the past 16 months.”

The summons letters are not the only place where apparently incorrect information about jury service has been posted. Until yesterday, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s website also seemed to suggest that no one with a felony conviction was eligible to serve on a jury.

In a tweet on Thursday, the DA’s office acknowledged the error, and the website has since been updated.   

“Regrettably, we did not timely update the website following the change in the law due to our work in court,” they wrote. 

The DA’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment on whether or not they would present evidence in either of the evidentiary hearings. Rob Kazik, the judicial administrator, could not be reached on Friday morning. 

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...