During testimony on Wednesday, an Orleans Parish Criminal Court administrator seemed to confirm allegations that the court had improperly disqualified people with past felony convictions from serving on juries over the last year and a half.
The hearing came two days after Orleans Parish Criminal Court judges halted all jury trials until March, in response to concerns raised by advocates and attorneys that despite an August 2021 change in state law granting people with felony convictions who have been off of probation or parole for five years the right to serve on juries, the court’s jury summons’ had not been updated.
Debra Reed, the jury administrator at the court, testified that since the law changed 340 people who responded to summons have been disqualified from jury service due to felony convictions, and that she did not know how many of those individuals should have been eligible to serve given the new criteria. She said she wasn’t aware of the new law until sometime late last year after being informed by the civil district court, and did not realize the need to change the summons process until Jan. 13 of this year, the day Voice of the Experienced first raised concerns about it in a letter to judges.
The hearing was ordered by the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal after Samuel Preston, who is facing trial on charges of attempted murder and illegal possession of a firearm, challenged the legality of his jury based on the summons issue during jury selection. His trial judge, Rhonda Goode-Douglas, denied that challenge. But after his lawyers took a supervisory writ, the appellate court ordered an evidentiary hearing on the issue.
A prosecutor with District Attorney Jason Williams office suggested on Wednesday that the exclusions were a drop in the bucket given the tens of thousands of summons that are sent out every year, and that defense attorneys could not point to how many were legitimately disqualified.
But lawyers for Preston said that there were potentially scores of people with felony convictions who never responded to the summons in the first place, because the qualifications listed on the summons themselves indicated that no one with a felony conviction is eligible to serve. All of that combined to exacerbate existing disparities in the jury pool, they said.
In their letter to judges, urging them to halt jury trials and revamp the summons process, VOTE pointed to the outdated language on the summonses, and to a questionnaire potential jurors must fill out that inquired about past felony convictions but did not clarify that they may be eligible to serve after five years.
It was unclear from Reed’s testimony, or the court’s chief technology officer, who was also called to testify, whether people who were disqualified from jury service in any given year were permanently stricken from the jury pool master list used to send out summons in subsequent years. That list is compiled using state voter registration and Department of Motor Vehicles records, and refreshed every year around Mardi Gras.
Initially the hearing was scheduled to take place on Monday, but was pushed back because court administrators had not responded to subpoenas for documents. That same day, judges decided to put on hold all jury trials until at least March — an apparent recognition of the flawed process.
Given the decision to halt jury trials and the fact that the jury pool that Preston had objected to had been dismissed, it was unclear whether or not the hearing would go forward. The prosecutor handling the case objected to it taking place on Wednesday, calling it a “waste of time.” But Goode-Douglas said that she had been ordered by the circuit court to conduct it regardless of the judges’ decision earlier in the week.
Michele Collins, the judicial administrator for Orleans Parish Civil District Court, also testified on Wednesday. She said that she learned of the law change in August of 2021 — the month that it went into effect — from a “constituent mailer” related to the law, and realized it might impact procedures at civil court. She then brought it to the attention of court officials.
But while Civil District Court also continued to use subpoenas with the outdated language and the jury questionnaire, Collins said that any individual claiming to have been convicted of a felony was questioned about when they completed probation or parole prior to determining their eligibility. And she said that no one who was determined to be ineligible was marked disqualified going forward to stop receiving summons.
That is not what happened at criminal court, according to the testimony of a woman with a past felony conviction who received a jury summons earlier last year. She testified that after receiving the summons with the outdated qualifications, she called the number on the summons to inquire about her eligibility. But a person who answered the phone at criminal court told her that she would be permanently excused from jury duty, without ever inquiring about when her conviction was or when she finished parole or probation.
But Goode-Douglas ultimately denied the motion to quash the jury pool in Preston’s case, citing a state law that prohibits resetting the jury pool “unless fraud has been practiced, some great wrong committed that would work irreparable injury to the defendant, or unless persons were systematically excluded from the venires solely upon the basis of race.”
“This court will note that there has not been any such discrimination here,” she said.