Criminal court judges in New Orleans decided on Monday afternoon to put all jury trials on hold until at least March amid allegations that the court has been illegally excluding people with felony convictions from serving on juries for the last year and half. In addition to delaying many criminal trials that were set to be held over the next five weeks, the decision is likely to bolster concerns over the legitimacy of dozens of jury trials in New Orleans dating back to August of 2021.
In a letter on Monday, Chief Judge Robin Pittman informed a lawyer for Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), Emily Posner, that jury venires — the legal term for the panel from which jurors are drawn — would be “deferred for the remainder of January 2023 and February of 2023.” VOTE, whose membership consists primarily of formerly incarcerated individuals, first raised concerns about the summons process in a letter to criminal court judges earlier this month.
“What the court did today was recognize an oversight,” said Norris Henderson, founder and Executive Director of VOTE, in a Monday press release. “It’s 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.”
The decision comes after the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal halted the attempted murder trial of Samuel Preston in New Orleans midway through jury selection last week, and ordered the trial judge in the case, Rhonda Goode-Douglass, to hold a hearing on whether or not the court has been using an outdated summons process in violation of state law.
In 2021, the Louisiana legislature changed the law to allow people with felony convictions to serve on juries as long as they have been off of probation or parole for five years, and are not under indictment. Prior to that, no one with any past felony conviction was able to serve on a jury. The new law was signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, and went into effect on August 1, 2021. But despite the new law, defense attorneys have argued that the criminal court in New Orleans has been continuing to exclude anyone with a past felony conviction by sending out summons with outdated information and failing to update their online questionnaire for jurors.
The hearing ordered by the Fourth Circuit had been scheduled for Monday morning in front of Goode-Douglass, but was postponed because court officials who were subpoenaed to provide information about the summons process had not yet responded with the requested documents. It was reset for Wednesday.
In their letter, VOTE pointed to summonses sent to potential jurors as recently as this year that still indicated anyone with a felony conviction was barred from jury service. In addition, a questionnaire that potential jurors are required to fill out online asks about felony convictions, but does not inquire when an individual completed parole or probation. The organization urged the court to resummon a new jury pool before resuming jury trials “in a manner that respects the rights of jurors” as guaranteed by state law.
But the judges at that time declined to do so, and moved forward with trials last week, including that of Preston. Lawyers for Preston with the Orleans Public Defenders Office, echoing the allegations made by VOTE, attempted to get his jury pool thrown out, arguing that excluding all people with felony convictions from potentially serving on his jury violated Preston’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. Goode-Douglass denied that challenge, but in response to a supervisory writ the Fourth Circuit sided with Preston and ordered an evidentiary hearing.
In another case out of Orleans Parish criminal court, Michael Shorts, who was found guilty of second degree murder in July of last year, has challenged his conviction based in part on the same allegations that his jury was not summoned in accordance with the recent change to state law.
Lawyers for Shorts filed a motion in his case last week arguing that the “crucial legal error” in the summons process entitles him to a new trial. It is set for a hearing in front of Judge Laurie White on Feb. 1.
In addition to any individuals with felony convictions who received a jury summons since the law changed and did not respond due to misinformation on the form, or were excluded once they attempted to fill out the questionnaire, there are also open questions regarding how many people with felony convictions may have been permanently purged from the list of people who receive summons in the first place.
If that’s the case, lawyers for Preston have argued, “then the systemic exclusion of those prospective jurors cannot be remedied by merely changing the language of the summons and the questionnaire.”
The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office has not responded to questions from The Lens regarding whether or not prosecutors will present evidence at Preston’s hearing on Wednesday.
In a statement on Monday following the pause of trials, a spokesperson for the office said that while they “respect the decision of the Criminal District Court, our primary concern is always for the victims and witnesses we represent – many of whom have been working with our team in preparation for this month’s and next month’s trials. Our office will continue to do all we can to bring justice to families with all due speed throughout this temporary pause.”
In a statement sent prior to the decision to suspend trials, a spokesperson for the public defenders office said that the office is “troubled by the ongoing deficiencies in the current jury system” and that “juries remain woefully unrepresentative of our entire community and far from equitable.”
This story has been updated with statements from Voice of the Experienced and the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.