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Woodruff Case Highlights Jury Selection Inadequacies

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Jury selected in Riverside capital murder case

By Mary Shelton

After two days, the final jury was picked by both sides of the capital murder case involving the death of a Riverside Police Department detective, but not without motions filed by the defense challenging the exclusion of at least three African-American jurors.

Both sides seemed to be happy with the jury selected, though each had raised concerns about racial discrimination earlier in the proceedings. The final panel consisted of one African-American, two Latinos and nine Whites.
Defense attorney Mark Blankenship, who represents Steve Woodruff, became concerned when Riverside County prosecutor Michael Soccio began excluding African-American jurors, even before voir dire jury selection had started.
While sorting through 159 questionnaires which asked prospective jurors their views on several issues including the death penalty, and the shooting of Tyisha Miller, both sides agreed that 36 members should be excluded, including one African-American. However, Soccio also wanted to remove for cause, nine more jurors including four African-Americans.
Blankenship asked that five White and two Hispanic jurors be excused for cause.
Presiding judge Christian Thierbach decided to retain the African-American jurors because African-Americans constituted only 10 percent of the pool, he said, a decision which greatly upset Soccio.
Soccio later filed a motion expressing his concern that both Blankenship and Thierbach had been discriminating against White jurors.
“The Court by attempting to retain African-Americans in the jury pool, has inadvertently placed the prosecution in a disadvantaged position,” he wrote in his motion.
Soccio had asked in his motion that Thierbach reconsider his decision to retain four African-American jurors.
He accused Thierbach of allowing African-Americans to remain in the pool for giving responses similar to White jurors who were kicked off, even though so many of the remaining White jurors who remained in the pool shared similar confusion over the jury instructions, that they had to be lectured on them during the voir dire process as those excluded for cause.
Soccio added that he would be forced to challenge jury selections, risking Wheeler motions, which might inflame or insulting potential jurors. And the People of the State of California and the victim’s family would be placed in a position which would not ensure equal justice or a fair playing field for them, he wrote.
Blankenship was incensed by the motion, and said that Soccio had prejudged the jurors before the selection process.
“His concerned about me doing a Wheeler motion is well-founded,” he said, “I’m tempted to do it already based on this motion.”
And so during jury selection, Soccio excluded five African-American and five Hispanic jurors, one several minutes after he had told Thierbach he approved of the panel.
Two of the Black jurors mentioned in Soccio’s motion were also removed for cause during voir dire selection.
Blankenship challenged three of the exclusions with Wheeler motions.
Thierbach denied two motions, but granted a third Wheeler motion, asking Soccio why he had kicked off Mr. M, an African-American juror.
This exclusion did not escape the attention of the other jurors in the courtroom.
Mr. M, an individual with a sociology background had sat in the alternative box, as Soccio questioned him for 10 minutes about his education in both Africa and Europe. When asked for his position on the death penalty, Mr. M had said he believed in it for some situations, not for others but that he could follow the law regarding the death penalty.
However, as Mr. M moved to the jury box to take his seat, Soccio told him not to bother because he was going to excuse him. At these words, other jurors in the room gasped. During a break, Thierbach granted Blankenship’s Wheeler motion and asked for Soccio to explain why he excluded that juror.
Earlier Soccio had excluded another male African-American juror who had expressed no strong feelings on the Tyisha Miller shooting, or the death penalty saying that it depended on the situation whether or not it should be used. This exclusion resulted in another Wheeler motion filed by Blankenship which was denied by Thierbach.
On Jan. 13, 2001, Doug Jacobs was shot allegedly by Woodruff, while he and Officer Ben Baker were handcuffing Woodruff’s mother, Parthenia Carr and his brother, Claude Carr, after Baker had initially responded to a complaint of loud music phoned in by a neighbor.
Opening arguments begin on Dec. 3, for a trial which is expected to last at least six weeks.
After listening to several jurors criticize the Riverside Police Department’s handling of the Miller shooting, Soccio told the jury it was okay to be pro-police, or else they would support criminality. Blankenship took exception to any implications that this case involves any animosity on his part against police.
“I’m pro-police,” he said, “I’m not pro what happened on the staircase.”

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