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August 1, 2013 at 11:40 AM

Wash. justices decry race bias in jury selection

GENE JOHNSON
Associated Press

Justices on the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday decried what they described as persistent racial bias in jury selection and called for new protections against it, possibly including the abolition of a legal tradition that dates back more than 700 years.

In considering the case of a black man who appealed his felony murder conviction, the justices launched into a discussion about race that spanned five opinions and 110 pages.

Eight of the nine justices voted to uphold the conviction of Kirk Saintcalle, who complained that prosecutors struck the only potential black juror in his case from the jury pool.

However, several justices nevertheless expressed concern about the issues raised, saying race is often a factor — conscious or unconscious — when lawyers use their peremptory challenges to dismiss potential jurors from cases.

“Peremptory challenges are used in trial courts throughout this state, often based largely or entirely on racial stereotypes or generalizations,” Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote. “As a result, many qualified persons in this state are being excluded from jury service because of race.”

When lawyers question members of a jury pool in Washington, they can ask prospects to be removed for cause, such as some evidence the juror would not be able to sit impartially on the case. They are also allowed three peremptory challenges, by which they can have jurors removed for no reason at all, as long as the effect is not purposeful discrimination.

Gonzalez said peremptory challenges arose in England in the 13th century as a way to make trials more fair. The king was allowed to remove potential jurors for cause — decisions that were considered infallible — and so the defense was allowed some automatic dismissals as well.

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