Jury Selection Process Examined for Racial Bias

By Tom Bacon

Washington State Supreme Court justices engaged in a lively debate about racial discrimination in the state's criminal justice system, but in the end, did nothing about it.
The case involved 28-year old Kirk Saintcalle, who was convicted of breaking into an Auburn apartment six years ago and murdering a man whom he suspected of being a police informant. At Saintcalle's trial, the only black member of the jury panel, a middle school counselor, was stricken by the prosecution on what's called a peremptory challenge.

Lawyers trying to pick a jury are given a certain number of peremptory challenges, meaning they can excuse a potential juror for virtually any reason. But in Saintcalle's case, the black woman was excused only after extensive questioning by the prosecutor - questions that made his lawyer raise the issue of racial discrimination.

The high court justices agreed that racial discrimination lurks in the criminal justice system, and that the issue must be addressed. But in upholding Saintcalle's conviction and long prison term without parole, they sidestepped the issue. Citing a U.S. Supreme Court case which specifically addressed racial bias in selecting juries, the state justices said they realize that they must address unintentional, institutional and unconscious forms of racism. But that's where they stopped, insisting they could not delve into the issue in Saintcalle's case because it had not been raised.

The federal case they cited spoke only to purposeful discrimination. One state high court justice wrote a lengthy opinion of his own, demanding that peremptory strikes be eliminated altogether.
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