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A Jury of Your Peers in Orange County, CA?

Recently I visited the ongoing trial of a man accused of murder. The defendant was a Hispanic man in his twenties and was an admitted member of a Hispanic gang in Santa Ana. I walked into the courtroom, sat down and took a look at the jury. I almost laughed out loud. Here was this rough and tumble Hispanic gang member and the jury judging him was totally made up of white people. The jury members looked about as far removed from the life the defendant had lived as was possible.

The sixth amendment of the United States Constitution provides in part, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed…” It is commonly thought that a defendant is entitled to a “jury of his peers” but that is not what the Constitution guarantees. The Constitution only guarantees an impartial jury, not one that in reality has anything in common with the defendant other than they are all human.

However, the Supreme Court noted over a century ago in Strauder v. West Virginia, the jury should be drawn from a group “composed of the peers or equals [of the defendant]; that is, of his neighbors, fellows, associates, persons having the same legal status in society as he holds.” This case involved an African American defendant and a jury in which other African Americans were excluded as a matter of law. This was held to be unconstitutional.

In our case, Hispanics are not excluded from serving on juries so the Strauder case would not specifically apply. But the ideas central to that case, namely that the defendant is entitled to be tried by his “peers” certainly does. Central Justice Center, where the case was tried, is located in the city of Santa Ana which is more than 78% Hispanic. So, that brings us to the BIG question: why are Hispanics not making up more than 78% of the jury pool and does it matter?

I would have loved to have another jury watching the same case at the same time, but made up of the defendant’s actual peers. Would the verdict have been different? We don’t know but it certainly would be interesting to find out.

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