A twice-convicted rapist complained this week as he was sent to prison for 15 years that Niagara County's jury selection system is biased against African-Americans.
Niagara County's top prosecutor, its commissioner of jurors and a prominent black attorney all agreed that more needs to be done to address a shortage of minorities in the jury pool.
Carlton D. Williams, 34, of Niagara Falls, who is black, was convicted in June by an all-white jury of raping a teenage girl in Niagara Falls on Aug. 16, 2003.
He was convicted on the same charges in 2004, but the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court granted him a new trial on the grounds that the victim's identification of Williams was tainted by help from police.
Williams told Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza on Thursday, "I maintain my innocence. I feel I didn't get a fair trial for a second time. This court made me select an all-white jury. I live in Niagara Falls, which has a large population of black people, more so than whites. But the jury [panel] is 250 white people and two black people in the audience. The U.S. Constitution entitles me to a trial by a jury of my peers. I faced a modern-day lynching."
Sperrazza answered, "Many times we've had an all-white jury acquit a black defendant in this same courtroom."
"I've done very well with white jurors in Niagara County," said E. Earl Key, a black attorney who started as a Niagara County assistant district attorney and now does defense work.
Key said he's never seen more than three blacks in any jury pool in the county. He said on several occasions, he's challenged an all-white panel of prospective jurors.
"I have yet to have a judge approve my motion so we can have a hearing on the selection process," Key said.
According to 2005 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the population of Niagara County is 75 percent white and 12 percent black. "Race issues in criminal justice matters are a perennial issue we have to face," said District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III, who is running unopposed for county judge this year. "It's something I intend to look into more deeply when I assume the position of county judge."
Commissioner of Jurors Christopher A. Pannozzo said jury summonses are sent after a random computerized selection process using tax, voter registration, motor vehicle and social services records.
"The pool doesn't have to reflect the whole population. It just can't systematically exclude anyone," Pannozzo said. State Judiciary Law says the jury panel must reflect "a fair cross section of the community."
The addition of social services records to the jury selection process was meant to improve minority participation, but in Niagara County at least, it hasn't worked. Pannozzo said there are problems with mailing summonses to black jurors, especially from Niagara Falls.
"There's a concern that summonses may not be reachable at times to members of the minority community, as well as a lack of trust for the system. These things can lead to a lack of participation," Pannozzo said.
Murphy said, "We do have problems in all our cities, but especially in Niagara Falls, with people not maintaining longtime residences. We face that problem when subpoenaing witnesses."
Key said the assertion that blacks are too transient to reach by mail is "just ridiculous."
He said he'd like to know the proportion of the jury pool from each source of records. "How many are they using from social services?" he asked. "Historically, blacks are not registered to vote in as great numbers as Caucasian Americans."