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BLOOMINGTON - McLean County juries are mostly white. That's not surprising, because the county is mostly white - 89 percent in the most recent census data.

But jury pools are close to 92 percent white, according to a Pantagraph review of McLean County jury statistics.

And defense attorneys say minorities in those pools often never make it to the jury box because they are dismissed before trial, making the gap even wider.

Minority leaders also challenge the 89 percent number, saying the county has become more diverse since the 2000 Census, citing an increase in the number of Hispanic, Indian and Asian residents living here.

Mike Williams, president of the Bloomington-Normal chapter of the NAACP, said he wasn't aware of the discrepancy in the jury pools, but he sees a problem.

Blacks made up less than 4 percent of jury pools during 2002-05. While census data has the county's black population at just over 6 percent, Williams thinks the figure is more like 8 percent.

"This is a concern for sure. Juries should be representative of our community," Williams said. "It's a real disservice when they aren't. But how do you address it? I would hope someone in the system is looking at the issue."

McLean County State's Attorney Bill Yoder said he doesn't think the statistics are an issue. Just because jurors are predominantly white doesn't mean they can't be fair and impartial, said Yoder adding those are the only qualities prosecutors look at when picking a jury.

"I can tell you without question that our juries in McLean County are fair," Yoder said. "They look at all the evidence, weigh it and come to a decision based on what they've seen. I think those decisions are appropriate."

Equal representation?

So why is the racial breakdown of the people in jury pools off when compared to the community's minority makeup?

People summoned for jury duty are either registered voters or have valid state driver's licenses, said Cindy Brand, McLean County's jury commissioner.

Brand, who provided data about jury pools to The Pantagraph, said jury commissioners throughout the state have noted a discrepancy about the number of minorities in the pools.

Nick Maroules, chairman of Illinois State University's department of sociology and anthropology, said the voter registration and driver's license lists being used to summon jurors are biased against poorer people.

Studies have shown many poor people don't vote and many don't have a valid driver's licenses in the counties where they actually reside, said Maroules, who has been hired in the past as a jury consultant.

Because many minorities in McLean County are poor, that explains why there are fewer of them showing up in jury pools, Maroules said.

"If you're trying to get a jury of one's peers, there are clearly a number of people excluded by the way we pick juries," Maroules said. "When you look at who's likely to be a registered voter and likely have to a valid license, it's the affluent."

Christina Deutsch, who supervises the Hispanic Outreach Program at the Western Avenue Community Center in Bloomington, has a complaint similar to the NAACP's about census data for Hispanics.

While the census bureau says about 3,800 Hispanics live in McLean County - 2.5 percent of the population - Deutsch thinks the number is more likely about 6,000.

But Hispanics only represent a little more than 1 percent of the people in jury pools. Deutsch said she's heard complaints over the years from Hispanic defendants being tried before all-white juries.

"The perception of the accused is they're never going to see things my way or give me a fair trial," Deutsch said.

Prosecutorial challenges

When prosecutors and defense attorneys pick a jury, there's typically 25 to 35 prospective jurors brought into a courtroom to be questioned about their ability to be fair and impartial.

The judge removes jurors if attorneys can show someone would be biased. Each side then has a number of challenges allowing them to dismiss other potential jurors.

Many times, prosecutors and defense attorneys rely on instinct or a gut feeling when using these challenges as they decide who's an ideal juror for their case, said Bloomington defense attorney Hal Jennings.

"It's like Vegas," Jennings said of picking jurors. "You're always guessing whether they're telling the judge the truth about their ethnic bias and whether they can be color blind. It's pure guesswork."

Jennings, who said many of his clients are black, said many minority jurors end up getting dismissed from juries during the selection process - usually by prosecutors.

Prosecutors can't legally use race to get rid of a juror, and Jennings said he isn't suggesting they are. There has to be a valid reason other than race for a dismissal.

Yoder acknowledged prosecutors dismiss some minorities from jury panels, but it happens only when a prosecutor thinks the person can't be fair. Prosecutors will "weed out" anyone who has a criminal record, doesn't trust law enforcement or has any other kind of extreme prejudice, Yoder said.

"I don't look at it as black and white," he said. "If a person can't be a fair juror, then yeah, we exclude them. The vast majority of time they aren't minorities. The vast majority of the time they're white."

Defense attorneys who think a prosecutor is using race to dismiss a juror can make a Batson challenge, referring to a previous court case that established the rule that a juror cannot be dismissed solely on the basis of his or her race. Yoder said he's unaware of any Batson challenge ever being successful in McLean County.

"People shouldn't worry about the racial makeup of a jury. What they ought to worry about is if that jury can be impartial and render a fair verdict. Race, religion, ethnicity - none of that comes into play."

Williams disagrees and says the absence of minorities on juries contributes to the larger problem of a disproportionate number of young black men being sent to prison in the United States.

"If indeed the prosecutors are disqualifying African Americans, we need to look at that practice and do what we need to do to eliminate that bias. Justice needs to be blind and impartial, but obviously it isn't."

'An unusual occurrence'

Defense attorneys want minorities on juries - not just because they may be sympathetic to minority defendants, but because they bring a different perspective to the deliberation process, Maroules said.

"The notion of an accurate cross-section is an important one, especially in cases with minority defendants," Maroules said. "Minorities tend to be empathetic and understanding in a way more affluent people aren't."

Still, having a minority on a jury in this county is "uncommon," according to McLean County Public Defender Amy Davis.

Davis, who said between 35 percent and 45 percent of her clients are black, said she often finds herself explaining to defendants why the jury is all-white.

"It's an unusual occurrence to have any black person on a jury period," Davis said. "I would certainly like to see more blacks serving on juries. It's very difficult for my clients to get a jury of their peers."

McLean County Judge Ronald Dozier said he wasn't shocked by the statistics because most of the time "the faces are pretty white" when he looks over at the jury box.

"It's a product of the community we're living in. We don't have a lot of minorities here in the community," Dozier said. "The numbers are low, but how close do you have to come?"

Jennings said a black juror is so uncommon that he estimates he's had two trials over the past five years with a single black juror. And he's tried dozens of cases during that period.

"This is an issue, and it isn't going to be fixed in my lifetime," Jennings said. "It's a fact of life in the justice system, and you deal with it the best you can."

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