Tyrone Washington trial

Defense attorney Charles Kenville, left, talks with Tyrone Washington Jr. on May 12 in the Webster County District Courtroom in Fort Dodge.

FORT DODGE  | Legal scholars around the state are closely watching a Northwood murder case which has raised complex issues about racial disparity in Iowa's jury selection process.

The entire panel of potential jurors gathered for Tyrone Washington Jr.'s trial on murder charges in Webster County District Court was dismissed Tuesday after it was learned the panel was entirely white except for one person who identified himself as Native American.

Washington, 41, Northwood, allegedly stabbed to death Justina Smith, 30, also of Northwood, in Swensrud Park on Aug. 5, 2013. Washington is African-American. Smith is white.

He is charged with first-degree murder. The trial was moved out of Worth County on a change of venue due to concerns about the small percentage of African-Americans living in that county.

According to 2010 U.S census data, the African-American population of Worth County is 47 people or less than 1 percent of the county's total population of 7,598.

The trial was moved to Webster County, which has an African-American population of 4 percent, according to that same census data.

Drake University law professor Robert Rigg said the case has been discussed on email news feeds.

"What this judge found is that the system we are using here didn't comply with our own rules," Rigg said. "Basically they were not in compliance with Chapter 607A of the code. The result was they didn't have a proportionally representative jury panel."

That section of the Iowa Code reads: "It is the policy of this state that all persons be selected at random from a fair cross section of the population of the area served by the court, and that a person shall have both the opportunity in accordance with the provisions of law to be considered for jury service in this state and the obligation to serve as a juror when selected." 

The parties in the trial are discussing using additional source lists such as local utility billing or lists of county residents receiving jobless benefits to provide a more racially diverse panel.

"What concerns me at this point in time and I think should concern everybody is that if we are not in compliance with our own rules, which is what the court found in this particular case," Rigg said.

“Is this a problem statewide or is it just in that judicial district?" he asked. "My sense from reading this is it may be a statewide issue. And if it is, we need to go back and take a look at the rules and see if they are adequate and comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's requirement for representative jury pools."

Ken Bosier, director of information systems and technology for the Iowa Judicial Branch, said the database from which citizens are selected for jury service is stored in Des Moines. The names are pulled by county at random from computerized lists from the Iowa Department of Motor Vehicles and voter registrations.

Bosier said the individual's race is not listed on most of these databases.

Defense attorney Charles Kenville raised issues with the database producing a master list from which Webster County residents are pulled for jury service. He argued there should be separate master lists for each county. 

He also challenged the decision by Webster County's jury manager Janelle Groteluschen to designate three staff members in the clerk's office to process juries rather than doing it herself. Those persons also have the capability to grant deferrals without taking the matter to a judge.

Adding to the confusion about the actual number of African-Americans in the Washington jury pool is the fact that apparently the race question on the juror questionnaire is optional.

Ten potential jurors had not filled out the race question prior to the start of proceedings on Tuesday. They were taken into a room and directed to complete the questionnaire. That was how it was determined that one potential juror was Native American.

Another reason for the racial disparity could be large numbers of undeliverable jury summons in Webster County due to citizens of lower socioeconomic circumstances moving frequently and not filing any official change of address notifications, Kenville said.

The Washington trial was originally set for jury selection Oct. 20, 2014, in Webster County District Court. There was an African-American woman in that initial pool but she was granted a medical deferment by an individual in the Clerk of Court's Office. The same woman was granted a deferment from service in May 2015 due to a previously-scheduled vacation.

Rigg said the issue will have to be viewed on a case-by-case basis by judges in the jurisdiction where it is raised.

"If you are on the defense side, you are going to take a hard look at jury panels," Rigg said.

He supported increasing the variety of source lists from which to draw potential jurors.

"Any kind of list that makes a jury pool more inclusive is a good thing. It makes it more representative of the community and that's the idea," Rigg said.

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