Jury issues before Supreme Court

Whether African-Americans were systematically excluded from a Kent County jury pool, and whether that exclusion violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment rights, are at issue in a case that the Michigan Supreme Court will hear in oral arguments this week.

In People v Bryant, the defendant objected that African-Americans were underrepresented in the Kent County jury pool for his February 2002 trial, in which he was convicted of criminal sexual conduct and other offenses. An evidentiary hearing established that, due to a computer error, a disproportionately high number of jury questionnaires went to zip codes with lower minority populations, while fewer went to zip codes with more minorities. The defendant argued that a truly random process would have sent questionnaires to a much higher number of African-American potential jurors. Although the trial judge concluded that there was no hard data to show that minorities had been systematically excluded from the jury pool, the Michigan Court of Appeals granted the defendant a new trial. The under-sampling of zip codes with higher minority populations violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury drawn from a fair cross-section of the community, the appellate court said. The prosecutor appeals that ruling.

The Supreme Court will also hear People v Richards, in which the defendant challenges his carjacking conviction on the basis that jurors were allowed to discuss the evidence among themselves during the trial, as opposed to waiting until final deliberations to do so. The judge in that case participated in a pilot program to test proposed changes to rules for juries. As part of that pilot, the trial judge told the jurors at the beginning of trial that they would be permitted to discuss the evidence among themselves in the jury room before final deliberations, so long as all jurors were present. The defendant argues that allowing these discussions during trial deprived him of a fair trial because jurors could influence each other and form conclusions before they had heard all the evidence.

The remaining eight cases that the court will hear involve criminal, Freedom of Information Act, governmental immunity, medical malpractice, no-fault auto insurance, premises liability, and state employee disability retirement issues.

The court will hear oral arguments in its courtroom on the sixth floor of the Michigan Hall of Justice today and tomorrow, starting at 9:30 a.m. each day. The court's oral arguments are open to the public.

Briefs are available online at http://www.courts.michigan.gov/supremecourt/Clerk/MSC_orals.htm.

Published: Tue, Dec 6, 2011