On Wednesday, a New Orleans judge declined to grant a new trial for a man who was convicted of second degree murder in July of last year, after his lawyers argued that his rights were violated because jurors with felony convictions were excluded from his jury pool in violation of state law.
Attorneys for Michael Shorts said that he was not afforded a fair and legal trial because the subpoenas Orleans Parish Criminal Court sent out to prospective jurors listed outdated qualifications, indicating that no one with a felony conviction could serve. That has not been the case since August of 2021, when a new law went into effect making people with felony convictions eligible for jury service after they have been off probation or parole for five years.
The incorrect summonses were first brought to light when the advocacy organization, Voice of the Experienced, wrote a letter to court judges in January urging them to immediately halt trials and fix the language to comply with the law change. They also warned that the summons issue “could call into question the validity of any jury trial in the last 16 months.”
The court eventually decided to suspend jury trials until March, after an appellate court halted a separate trial midway through jury selection and ordered a hearing on the issue. A court administrator said earlier this month that they are working to change the language on the summonses.
But the hearing on Wednesday was the first to address whether the issue may impact past convictions.
“Once a law is passed, it has to be followed,” Chris Murell, a lawyer for Shorts, argued on Wednesday. “Mr. Shorts did not get the benefit of that.”
Judge Laurie White acknowledged that the court should have changed the language on the summonses after the law went into effect. “Let’s be clear: we all should have known it,” she said. “The defense should have known it. The prosecutors should have known it. Obviously the judges should have known it…. We didn’t get the paperwork changed.”
But she ruled that there was not sufficient evidence to show that the apparent oversight had a direct enough impact on Short’s case to meet the legal standard for granting him a new trial.
Data produced by the court for a hearing last month revealed 340 people who were summoned for jury duty since August of 2021 were disqualified due to past felony convictions. But the list did not distinguish between people who were rightfully disqualified because they had not been off probation or parole for five years, and those who may have been wrongfully disqualified.
It also did not detail when each juror was disqualified, so there was no way to show how many disqualifications happened during the month that Shorts went to trial.
“You can’t show me that there were any felons that we removed,” White said. “You can’t tell me that these were in the month he went to trial.”
Attorneys for Short would have liked to present more evidence. Murell asked for a continuance in order to obtain the list of jurors disqualified due to felony convictions, with the dates of their disqualifications, to show the direct impact on Shorts’ jury pool. But White denied that request.
In addition, they had subpoenaed two court administrators to testify — the deputy judicial administrator, Shannon Sims, and the jury administrator, Debra Reed — but neither showed up to the courtroom on Wednesday, despite having offices in the building.
“I guess they’re not scared of me on my way out,” said White, who is retiring next week.
Defense attorneys and advocates have argued that it is impossible to gauge the full impact of the outdated qualifications — which until recently were also listed on the official court website and the district attorney’s website — because many people who think they are disqualified may not respond at all. Each month, around half of the 4,000 summonses that are sent out are ignored.
In addition, it is still unclear whether people who have been previously disqualified due to a felony conviction were permanently removed from the list of people who might receive a summons in the first place.
Will Snowden, the director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s New Orleans office and founder of the non-profit The Juror Project, testified on Wednesday that felony disenfranchisement was one of the largest contributing factors in removing diversity from juries. He cited research that showed more diverse juries — and in particular juries that include people with felony convictions — tended to deliberate longer, ask more questions, counter one another’s implicit biases, and ultimately come to more objective decisions.