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Constitutional Law

Why Civil Rights Are Important

150 150 Joel Leppard

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Foster v. Chatman, a death penalty case where prosecutors excluded every African-American from the jury pool based upon bogus pretexts. The prosecutors even circled the race of the African-American jurors and highlighted the African-Americans as “definite NOs.”  The prosecution excluded one African-American woman because her age was so close to the defendant but she was 15 years younger and the prosecutors included 8 white jurors whose age was close to the defendant. There are many more examples like that, you can read more about Justice Sotomayor and the jury selection bias case here.

In Florida, a 2000-2010 study of juries in Sarasota and Lake Counties found that 1) juries formed from all-white jury pools are 16 percentage points (or 22.7% more likely)  to convict black defendants than white defendants, and 2) this gap in conviction rates is entirely eliminated when the jury pool includes at least one black member.   See “The Impact of Jury Race in Criminal Trials” for more information.

Along the same vein, in the New Jim Crow Chapter 5, Michelle Alexander argues that the mass disfranchisement of largely minority felons is akin to the poll taxes, literacy tests and other forms of racially motivated voter suppression utilized after the Civil War.  If you haven’t read this book yet, it’s an eye opening read. (Amazon link here.)

I think a big takeaway from these example is how important it is to get disenfranchised Persons of Color back in the jury pools.  However, here in Florida we have moved in the opposite direction in the past five years.  In 2010, Gov. Rick Scott reimposed the lifelong denial of civil rights to convicted felons, unless pardoned by the Governor himself.  Florida law is unique, insofar as the convicted felon must be pardoned by the Governor and a majority of the publicly elected State Cabinet in order to restore one’s civil rights after being convicted of a felony (and pretty much everything is a felony these days). It’s so bad that the UN is convening a panel to determine if the U.S. is violating international civil rights standards set forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  If you are interested in helping, the ACLU is working toward reinstating automatic restoration of civil rights and you can sign their petition in support of voting rights here.

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