S.B. County will scrap two-step method - MJ Mention

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S.B. County will scrap two-step method - MJ Mention

Post by whisper » Sat Jul 17, 2004 12:11 am

S.B. County will scrap two-step method
By Quintin Cushner/Staff Writer


The method by which prospective Santa Barbara County jurors are chosen will change dramatically within six months, as the former two-step selection method is replaced by a one-step summons system.

Jury Commissioner Gary Blair announced in a declaration that the court Executive Committee, consisting of county judges, authorized him on Tuesday to start making changes.

Critics of the county's jury selection process - mostly criminal defense attorneys - have long advocated the switch from a two-step process to a one-step in hopes that it would improve diversity among those called for duty.

Under the two-step process, eligible jurors drawn from voter registration and Department of Motor Vehicles lists are first sent questionnaires. In the second step, respondents to the questionnaires are sent summonses to report for duty.

An alleged problem with that system is that potential jurors could opt out of the system without consequence by not returning their questionnaires.

The proposed one-step process would allow the jury commissioner to send a questionnaire and summons at the same time. Those who don't respond to the summons might have to appear before a judge and face fines or criminal sanctions, Blair said.

Another problem with the current system, critics have suggested, is that those who don't respond to the jury questionnaire are then permanently dropped from the list of eligible jurors in Santa Barbara County.

In his declaration, Blair noted that the county's computer software has been changed to "eliminate most 'permanent excuses' so that all potential jurors are eligible to receive a summons and questionnaire during every jury cycle."

Other intended changes include standardizing juror excuse policies and improving juror parking, Blair said.

"I think it's probably long overdue," defense attorney Steve Balash said. "I have personal knowledge of people who didn't want to be involved with jury service, and would throw their questionnaire away."

Blair's declaration is the latest development in the controversy over jury pools in the county. Prior to his announcement, more than 60 cases countywide were on hold because of challenges made to the jury selection process.

The lead North County case is that of James Manuel Noriega, who may face the death penalty on charges that he strangled Kathleen Martinez, his pregnant girlfriend, and then suffocated her daughter, Savanna Zamora, on July 18, 2001, at the Palms Motel in Santa Maria.

On June 3, Deputy Public Defender Tom Allen filed a motion on behalf of Noriega, alleging that the county's method for selecting jurors led to an underrepresentation of Latinos in the jury pool, violating his client's right to a fair trial on constitutional grounds.

When contacted about the intended changes, Allen seemed miffed that the jury commissioner hadn't acted sooner.

"I have some concerns because I have an Oct. 18 trial date," Allen said. "What is my jury pool going to look like? It shouldn't be this late in making these changes."

Blair's declaration indicated that almost 35,000 county residents were contacted on May 19, using the old two-step system. However, he indicated that before the questionnaires were sent out, the software was changed so that nonresponders would be placed back into the list of eligible jurors.

On June 15, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura ruled that the county's jury selection process is race-neutral and that a significant underrepresentation or systematic exclusion of Latinos as prospective jurors had not been established.

The court of appeal's ruling overturned Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa's decision about the jury controversy in the South Coast murder case of the People vs. Ballesteros. In that case, Ochoa declared the defendant could not receive a fair trial because the jury pool did not represent a fair cross-section of the Latino community.

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney has long supported changing the system, reasoning that it would streamline the criminal justice system.

"We think it's a great idea," said Assistant District Attorney Pat McKinley. "It will eliminate one if not more of the major complaints that these jury challenges are based on."

Blair also noted in his declaration that the method of selecting grand jurors in the Michael Jackson child molestation case and other cases differed from the norm.

"The Grand Jury in those cases was assembled on very short notice utilizing procedures that have no bearing whatsoever to the manner in which the trial juries in either south or north Santa Barbara County are or will be assembled," Blair wrote.


* Staff writer Quintin Cushner can be reached at 739-2217 or by e-mail at [email=qcushner@pulitzer.net.]qcushner@pulitzer.net.[/email]

July 15, 2004

Source: [url="http://]http://www.santamariatimes.com/articles ... news03.txt[/url]

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