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Wanted: Fair Trials in Hemet

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Desert Pass

By Bruce Bean


Defense attorneys who handle cases in Riverside County say that minority defendants whose cases are tried in the Hemet Division of the Superior Court are more likely to be tried by an what they term as unfair and biased juries.

Their concern is heightened, they say because of the upcoming move of most of the criminal court cases to Temecula to the new South West Court House.

Attorneys said that the cause for their concern is the lack of minority representation in the area stretching from Perris to Temecula on the jury pool, especially for cases that are filed in Perris, which has a majority of Hispanics and African Americans.

Chad Hughes of Los Angeles, who tries cases in Riverside, said that the lack of a fair and equitable jury pool allows the District Attorneys office to ask for higher plea bargains than he receives for the same cases in Los Angeles County.

He blames the inequity on the DA’s ability to win a conviction in any case that they try in Hemet because jurors are primarily retired White citizens who have time to serve.
The DA’s office did not offer comment on this story although several attempts were made to contact their office.

“Under the 6th Amendment there’s an idea of a fair cross section of the community in a jury that is supposed to have a feel and the flavor of the entire community,” he said. “Not just a certain segment of the community like out in Hemet.”

Hughes is appealing the case of Kenneth Williams that was recently decided in Hemet. Williams was convicted of attempted murder, attempted voluntary manslaughter, and faces a minimum of 37 years in prison.

Williams’ jury was all White and according to one juror who wrote an affidavit about the jury’s conduct, used alleged improper negotiations to decide Williams’ fate.

In an interview with the Black Voice News juror Jim Chambers said that he changed his vote from not guilty to guilty because of negotiations with other jurors on a lesser sentence for Williams. Chambers also said that jurors referred to African Americans as those people. Williams’ appeal was being filed on January 20.

“I don’t think we got a fair trial in Hemet,” Hughes said. “I don’t think the jury reflected the community involved.”

“I think the sixth amendment issue here is a huge community issue because the whole community is disadvantaged by that. If you don’t have a fair jury, you just don’t have a fair system.”

Jurors for the Hemet Court are pulled from a series of zip codes, said Hughes, some of which are slated for development and others that do not yet show up on a search of the United States Postal Services’ web site.

Other areas listed are part of the Soboba Indian Reservation or sparsely populated desert towns like Anza. The bulk of the jury pool comes from Hemet, San Jacinto and Idyllwild. Perris, whose felony cases are heard in Hemet, is not one of the zip codes listed.

That is slated to change when the move occurs but because the majority of residents in Perris are working-class minorities they may find it hard to serve because of work obligations.

That leaves a city that is almost approximately 59% minority with little or no representation in felony jury pools. There seems to be little hope of change with the move to the new facilities said Attorney Virginia Blumenthal.

“The pool itself is not bad in my opinion,” she said. “The problem, as I see it, is who can stay to sit on the jury?”

“Frequently we have a low representation of minorities because they can’t afford to sit on a trial that’s a few weeks long or a month long. This is where the past discriminatory practices of our country come in.

This is dealing with many people of color of varying shades because they will not necessarily be in a position where they can afford to take that type of time off work unless they are government employees or some type of governmental agency.”

Blumenthal who has handled many high-profile cases in Riverside said that juries are often predisposed to be against minority defendants.

“If I could have a county jury I would be fine,” she said. “But the problem is that they pull that jury from White areas.

“Hemet juries are older people, I would suspect a very high percentage White, and I would suspect that there is a very low percentage of any type of minorities out there.

It’s very hard to get an acquittal out here for minority clients. I tried a couple of cases with Edi Faal and he was appalled with the type of juries we get out here.”

“I don’t think it’s [racism] in the foremost of their minds, but I think that they are conditioned that way.”

The Williams case is a good example of this. Chambers told the BVN that he had made the biggest mistake of his life when he changed his vote from acquittal on all counts to guilty on lesser charges in the Williams case.

Blumenthal said that this happens all the time.

“It’s called a compromised verdict, which means that some of the juries are voting high, some are voting low, and they come to a compromise,” she said.

“That’s not suppose to happen and I specifically voir dire on that.”

“You have to vote what you genuinely believe to be your own personal verdict based upon the facts of the law. They are also not supposed to consider punishment.”

Presiding Judge James Warren doesn’t agree that jury bias is a problem in Riverside and believes the recent move to the new Southwest facility will be beneficial to all.

“I don’t see a problem with that at all because the jury pool that we will be calling from is basically the same area that the defendants are from,” he said. “We’ll be calling jurors from Perris, Lake Elsinore and other areas.

“We’ve redrawn some lines so the jury pool will be coming from where the cases are coming from.” Warren does admit, however, that a lack of representation for minorities is a problem.

“You will always have people who cannot serve because of hardship,” he said.
“We hope that our new one jury, one day policy will eliminate some of the burden.”

The policy allows jurors to serve one day or on one jury which ever is longer and be free from further service for 12 months. Riverside County does not keep statistics on juror race because data is taken from Department of Motor Vehicles records and voter registration.

Warren said that his main concern about the new offices is transportation for poor citizens to and from court proceedings but the move to the new facility will be beneficial to both the courts and the citizenry.

“We are very concerned about the transportation issue because there is not public transportation to and from that area right now,” he said. “The Riverside Transit Agency is looking at putting a line out there that serves that area for those people who don’t have transportation.”

“This move allows the court to have all of the criminal cases in one place and allows a better utilization of our resources.

I think that there are going to be some inconveniences in the communities because unfortunately, the Perris Court is going to have to close and the Lake Elsinore court is going to have to close, but overall we will be able to better serve the community in the new facility.”

An RTA spokesperson said that Rte 79 would offer services from Hemet and Temecula and offer service to the Southwest Justice Center. Those services will begin on May 25. Until that time people may call Dial-a-ride which will offer transportation to those in need of a ride to and from the facility.

Those needing a ride may call 1-800-795-7887

Hughes believes that the problem of biased juries will only get worse when the move takes place. He said that the problem is community based and can only be solved by those within the community coming together.

“It’s got to be a community thing, because the whole community is impacted by this issue he said,” he said. “That’s why people have to come together to fight this thing and make a squawk about it.”

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