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SEARCHING FOR A JUST PROCESS

Though Johnnie Cochran is long gone, his complaint about facing an unrepresentative jury -- a complaint often raised by local lawyers, too -- still hovers over the courthouse. As long as it does, some residents will never be able to have confidence in the judicial system.

That's why both defenders and critics of the current system should welcome State Supreme Court Justice Vincent Doyle's decision to have a panel probe jury-selection procedures.

If the panel headed by City Court Judge Shirley Troutman finds that African-Americans are regularly underrepresented on juries, and can pinpoint the reasons for that, the result will be better-informed juries whose deliberations will take into account a broader array of experiences. That cannot help but enhance the quest for justice.

If, on the other hand, the panel can document that jury-selection procedures are fair and that juries, overall, have been representative, it should help dispel a perception that undermines confidence in the courts even if it's not true.

That perception, long voiced by black attorneys here, made news when voiced by Cochran during the racially charged Cynthia Wiggins case when the jury included no blacks and there were only five African-Americans in the 95-member jury pool. That's less than half the percentage of blacks in Erie County, from which the pool was chosen.

Statisticians may object to focusing on one case, but it's a long-standing complaint of lawyers who represent black clients. And you don't need probability theory to recognize the certainty that when it happens in well-covered cases like that, it leaves a lasting impression. Even in less-publicized cases, word gets around and perceptions get formed.

Troutman's seven-member panel was selected from the Eighth Judicial District Advisory Committee, composed of legal experts and community people. Depending on what it recommends, changes can be made either at Doyle's direction or pursued legislatively.

Doyle, in fact, already is interested in the possibility of taking advantage of the fact that state law allows people to volunteer for jury duty. He wants to see if those volunteer pools could be used more heavily to increase diversity without violating the randomness of the process.

The panel includes past presidents of the Erie County Bar Association and the Women's Bar Association. However, it doesn't include officials of the Minority Bar Association -- an obvious deficiency.

That's because the Minority Bar group did not have a seat on the Advisory Committee from which the panel was chosen. However, that's being corrected, reflecting the type of systemic change that needs to occur. Troutman -- a member of the Minority Bar group -- says the committee's membership is being updated and the Minority Bar Association is being invited to join. For this project, the Minority Bar and the NAACP will help with the public outreach and educational effort that will follow the data-gathering.

If done right, this effort can result in a jury system that not only is fair, but appears fair.

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