Is it okay for a Texas prosecutor to prevent a juror from being selected because he or she is black? Of course not – at least, the Supreme Court has said as much back in 1986. A landmark case called Batson v. Kentucky prohibits race-based jury selection, but allows striking jurors for other, “race-neutral” reasons.
But a Wharton County prosecutor claims his boss encourages blocking black people from juries. A black defendant was convicted of assault by a jury that did not include any black members. Then, prosecutor Nathan Wood came forward and said that district attorney Ross Kurtz encouraged Wood to keep black people off the jury. Brian Rogers, a reporter with the Houston Chronicle, says that the issue came to light after a conversation Wood had with a friend.
“(Wood) had had a candid conversation with a friend about being encouraged to keep blacks off the jury,” Rogers says. “And that friend had come forward to the judge apparently. So the prosecutor knew the judge knew about it.”
The prosecutor then felt it necessary to go on the record to clarify his comments that Kurtz didn’t, in fact, instruct him to keep blacks off the jury, he merely encouraged it.
“After the conviction, the prosecutor came forward and read a statement into the record that he had not stricken any of the blacks from the jury because they were black, but had race-neutral reasons,” Rogers says. “But that there was, in fact, an attitude at his office where he was encouraged to strike blacks from the jury.”
But it gets tricky to prove that any of this goes against Batson, because prosecutors simply have to give a “race-neutral” justification for excluding jurors. Those reasons can be extremely vague, Rogers says.
“You have to remember, Batson simply says a prosecutor has to give a race-neutral reason for why they made their decision,” he says. “That can be anything from, you know, going to their Facebook page and seeing the kind of clothes they wear in daily life, or the way the potential juror looked at a prosecutor during jury selection.”
Because of that, the practice is actually quite common. Prosecutors in other counties told Rogers that they were aware of the problem in their own courthouses.
“It’s sort of been a dirty secret in the courthouse that this sort of thing happens everywhere,” Rogers says. “When we started asking if this has happened here in Harris County, one former prosecutor here had said she had been advised to do it, and a former prosector, who is black, said no, she had not been advised to do it but, that it didn’t surprise her.”