Should Ohio counties be forced to widen the pool of people they consider for jury duty to get a more diverse pool of citizens deciding the outcome of criminal cases?
U.S. Sen. Cecil Thomas of North Avondale thinks so. But the organization representing prosecutors across the state begs to differ.
Back in September, Thomas introduced SB 200, a bill that would force every county in Ohio to add licensed drivers from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ rolls to jury pools.
Earlier this week, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association officially signaled that it opposes Thomas’ bill. Why? Because if you don’t take your civic duty to vote seriously enough, OPAA says, you probably won’t take jury duty seriously, either.
“While we applaud the desire to include a greater proportion of the population, we are concerned that many people who chose not to register to vote do so for the express purpose of avoiding jury duty,” OPAA Executive Director Louis Tobin wrote in a Nov. 13 letter to Thomas’ office. “Such a person is not a good candidate for such an important responsibility and our fear is that these individuals will not take the responsibility seriously.”
Currently, state law only requires county jury commissions to select potential jurors from county’s voter registration rolls. Using other source lists is at the discretion of each individual commission.
Ohio and Wyoming are the only states that allow that practice when compiling master jury lists. All other states require at least two sources. Kentucky requires jury selection from voter registrations, BMV drivers’ license holders and state tax lists.
Hamilton County and many other counties in Ohio opt to use just voter registration lists. That became a point of contention last year during the trial of former University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing, who shot unarmed black motorist Sam DuBose in Mount Auburn. Two juries failed to reach a verdict in Tensing’s trials on murder and manslaughter charges.
Tensing’s first jury was made up of six white men, four white women and two black women selected from a pool of more than 1,000 potential jurors. The second jury was composed of one black man, two black women, two white men and seven white women.
Critics said those juries weren’t representative of the city of Cincinnati, which is 45 percent black. The jury in the first trial also had fewer people of color proportionally than Hamilton County, which is 26 percent black.
"Using just voter registration has not been helpful enough to come up with diverse jury pools," Thomas said last year after the jury was selected in Tensing’s first trial. "There is a tremendous amount of opportunity to control and manipulate juries."
Ohio ranks 31st in the nation when it comes to voter registration. Just 77 percent of eligible voters register to cast ballots. There’s a racial and political element to registration and voting, as well. Low-income and minority communities generally have lower registration and voting rates. Moves by Republican lawmakers and state officials in recent years, including 2016 efforts by Secretary of State Jon Husted to purge voter registration rolls of inactive voters, have led to charges that the party is making it harder for minorities to stay registered and cast ballots. It is estimated that 144,000 voters in Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton Counties alone lost their voter registration due to Husted's move, including 14,000 in Hamilton County. A federal judge later determined the practice was illegal.
For years, some critics of Ohio’s practice have called for changes to the way counties choose their juror pools. An Ohio Supreme Court Task Force on Jury Selection led by late Judge Joseph T. Clark suggested widening the jury pool back in 2004.
“There is a definite benefit to the use of a combined list of registered voters and licensed drivers in that the responsibility for jury service is spread over a larger segment of the population, increasing the probability that the jury pool will be representative of the community,” Clark wrote in the Task Force’s recommendations.