FORT DODGE | A Northwood man facing trial on a charge of first-degree murder is challenging the method by which citizens are selected for jury duty.
Tyrone Washington Jr., 41, is accused of stabbing 30-year-old Justina Smith to death in Swensrud Park in Northwood on Aug. 5, 2013. He allegedly fled the scene in Smith's Pontiac Grand Prix. Authorities captured him hours later in Scott County following a chase through corn and bean fields along Interstate 80.
His trial was to begin Monday with jury selection. But that was postponed for one day as defense attorney Charles Kenville presented evidence alleging his client is being discriminated against because of the possible lack of African Americans along the 225 potential jurors being called to court Tuesday.
Approximately five percent of the population of Webster County is African American, according to census records. But none of the potential jurors identified themselves as African American on the juror questionnaires, Kenville said. The question asking the respondent's race is optional as is the question about gender. About nine percent of the respondents called for the Washington case refused to answer the race question.
"I think the court can totally see the issue we've got here," Kenville said.
Currently records from Iowa Department of Motor Vehicles and voter registration are used to select potential jurors.
Kenville suggested Webster County request that other records such as utility bills, unemployment checks, disability payments and property tax data be used in picking citizens for jury service.
No county has ever requested to expand the selection criteria for jury service, according to Ken Bosier, director of information systems and technology for the Iowa Judicial Branch. The database is housed at the Judicial branch in Des Moines. the software is maintained by Xerox.
Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan vigorously disagreed with Kenville's assertions that Webster County officials were negligent in their duties.
"His rights have not been prejudiced," Roan said.
If convicted, Washington faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"His life is at stake here," Kenville said pointing at his client seated next to him. "This is a Class A felony with his life in the balance."