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Should Jurors Be Picked From More Than Just Voter Lists?

Bill Rinehart
Donyetta Bailey and other activists talk with the media after the second mistrial of Ray Tensing.

Two separate juries could not reach a verdict for a white former University of Cincinnati Police officer. Ray Tensing was tried for shooting and killing unarmed black motorist Sam DuBose in 2015. Those juries, like all in Hamilton County, were made up of registered voters. But there is an effort to change how Ohio picks its jurors.

Some say the racial makeup of the two juries had something to do with them not reaching verdicts. The first Tensing trial in 2016 had ten white and two black jurors. In the second trial, there were nine whites and three blacks on the panel.

At a community forum before that second trial, the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office Felony Division's director said research has shown diversity matters in juries. Rodney Harris says without a mix of different races in a jury, the topic is less likely to come up.

"If you're talking about an incident where you have a minority or an African-American who's a defendant, someone who's alleging that the state may have been unfair, if race is never talked about in that scenario, that's a problem."

The president of the Cincinnati Black Lawyers Association agrees. Donyetta Bailey says she's concerned Hamilton County's jury pool isn't diverse enough.

"The bottom line is there is a sector of people who will never register to vote. And if we have other avenues, why can't we use them all," she asks.

Those other avenues include people with driver's licenses or state ID cards. Ohio law allows counties to add them to the mix. Thirty-seven counties draw from both pools, but most only do that for municipal courts. Only eight counties draw from both for common pleas courts.

Ohio Senate Bill 200 would change that. It would require counties to draw jurors from both pools.

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorney's Association opposes SB 200. Executive Director Louis Tobin says the law already allows jurors to come from both pools. He says the association also believes some people don't register to vote because they don't want to serve on a jury.

"If they don't want to be called for jury service they're disinterested jurors who we think tend to blame the prosecutor for the fact that they're there."

The measure's primary sponsor, State Senator Cecil Thomas, says prosecutors have a different motivation behind their opposition.

"Prosecutors obviously want to have an appearance they're tough on crime and that they have a high conviction rate. Their potential conviction rate would go down if there's a much more diverse pool of jurors," he says.

The Prosecutor's Association's Lou Tobin disagrees. He says someone who doesn't want to serve on a jury is unlikely to give a verdict fair and serious consideration.

Public Defender Rodney Harris says he also wants able jurors. He's concerned about expanding jury pools, but for a different reason. He wonders if the rule change may not have the intended effect.

"Say one out of four jurors is a minority, if the pool that we're going to add makes it to where it's 15 percent, that will lower what we already have. What I'm concerned about is making sure we do the research so that if we make the change it will have the effect that we're looking for it to have, with the ultimate goal being more diverse juries, juries that reflect a community's makeup."

Harris says if expanded pools don't increase diversity, he's not sure what the solution is.

Cincinnati City Council passed a resolution in October calling on Hamilton County to change its rules and pick jurors from drivers and ID holders. County commissioners plan to look into the request.

SB 200 has been referred to committee.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.