The D.C. Court of Appeals this week announced it will sit as a full court to explore the rights criminal defendants have to inspect juror records, including whether the burden to access the confidential documents is too high.
Two men are challenging their conviction in an armed robbery case, and they claim that the Superior Court system for selecting jurors violates due process rights and infringes on the D.C. Jury System Act (2001). The defendants sought to challenge the fairness of the jury pool, but were denied access to juror records.
Lawyers for the defendants argue the Superior Court system of selecting jurors produces panels that exclude blacks, and thus do not reflect a fair cross-section of the community. The defendants, Larry Gause and Karlepa Wilkey, were convicted and imprisoned for their roles in robbing a 63-year-old man at gunpoint in 2005.
The court appointed George Washington University Law School professor Peter Meyers to argue for Wilkey. A D.C. Public Defender Service attorney, Mikel-Meredith Weidman, represented Gause. The Public Defender service took the lead in arguing for greater, easier access to jury pool records, which include the name, age, race, and occupation of qualified prospective jurors. Weidman could not be reached for comment; Meyers applauds the D.C. Court of Appeals for voting to take up the dispute as a full court.
The D.C. Court of Appeals published a two-page order Thursday vacating a split decision a three-judge panel issued in October 2008. In that decision, Judges Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, Phyllis Thompson, and Frank Schwelb agreed that Gause and Wilkey should have a shot to argue post-conviction for inspection of jury records. The trial court judge set an improper standard for the defendants to access the records.
But Schwelb and Thompson found defendants in Superior Court, unlike their counterparts in federal district court, do not have an unqualified right to inspect jury records. The majority said the issue is one of first impression in the District and so there’s no binding authority on the court to resolve the dispute.
The judges grappled with setting a procedure in the District and settled on a standard that requires defendants to prove a “reasonable belief” that there has been a due process violation before getting access to the records. Without some heightened standard, the court ruled, “there may be no sound reason for counsel to refrain from demanding such discovery in any case triable by a jury.” The judges worried a barrage of defense motions would unduly burden Superior Court.
Blackburne-Rigsby wrote in dissent, saying the majority’s “reasonable belief” standard sets too high a bar for defendants to acquire jury records, which are exempt from public inspection under the District’s public records laws.
“Under the majority’s heightened standard, a litigant is forced to put the proverbial cart before the horse,” Blackburne-Rigsby wrote. “That litigant must prove—or prove to a lesser degree—the merits of his constitutional claims in order to garner access to the non-public and confidential information necessary to prove the merits of his/her claim.”
Blackburne-Rigsby said the “majority’s approach could potentially serve to shield infirmities in the jury selection process.” She notes that the federal system seems to be working fine, albeit with a smaller criminal trial caseload compared to D.C. Superior Court.
The D.C. Court of Appeals will sit en banc sometime after May 13. The court sits en banc usually once or twice a year, an official at the appeals court says.