Saturday, November 6, 2004

Jurors checked for criminal past

Prosecutors use federal database

By Dan Horn
and Sharon Coolidge
Enquirer staff writers

Defendant Timothy Jordan (right) sits alongside his lawyer Robert Ranz during Jordan's homicide trial Friday. Ranz has asked for a mistrial because of the prosecution's use of a criminal database to run background checks on potential jurors.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen has been subpoenaed to testify Monday about his office's use of a national crime computer to run criminal background checks on potential African-American jurors in an ongoing murder case.

Timothy Jordan, charged with aggravated murder, asked a judge this week for a new trial on grounds that Allen's office improperly used computer records at the federal National Crime Information Center to disqualify two black jurors.

Allen declined to comment Friday through a spokesman.

The vast national database of criminal records, maintained and operated by the FBI, is available to law-enforcement agencies. The database also includes information on outstanding warrants, missing people, stolen cars and criminal street gang members.

FBI officials say the information is tightly controlled and monitored and may be used only for "criminal justice purposes," which could include checking up on jurors.

Jordan's lawyer, Robert Ranz, said prosecutors checked the criminal records of three of the four African-Americans who were in a pool of potential jurors during the jury-selection process, ignoring all of the other jurors.

"The practice itself of the state running the records of prospective jurors, even if not illegal, is abhorrent and must be stopped,'' he wrote. "The chilling effect on the community as a whole could preclude many people of all races from participating in jury duty."

In his request for a mistrial, Ranz suggested that prosecutors targeted African-Americans in hopes of keeping them off the jury in Jordan's trial. Jordan, who is African-American, is accused of fatally shooting RaeMone Williams in the West End on April 22.

Ranz alleged that it's improper for prosecutors to run such checks on jurors and complained that the focus on African-Americans might have been discriminatory.

Two of the three people checked were found to have past criminal convictions.

"For the state to use an official database to run the record of an individual who responded for jury duty, has committed no crime and the use of the database is not for law enforcement or discovery purposes, is wrong and could violate those individuals' civil rights,'' Ranz wrote in his argument.

Other state and federal prosecutors say using the database to check the records of jurors is legal - although not routinely done.

According to Ranz's mistrial request, prosecutors used the data to challenge jurors during jury selection. He said prosecutors told him that they checked the jurors because they had indicated on jury questionnaires that they did not drive. A suspension of driving privileges often is a requirement of convicts on parole or probation.

In two cases, the computer database showed prior convictions that the jurors did not disclose on the questionnaires. Those jurors were then disqualified from jury service because prosecutors said they lied on the questionnaire about their criminal records, Ranz said.

Felons are allowed to sit on juries in Ohio, but lawyers can ask for a prospective juror to be removed from the pool for any number of reasons. Seeking a fair and impartial jury, prosecutors and defense lawyers ask potential jurors numerous questions about their background, their livelihood, if they have been a crime victim or if they have been convicted of a crime.

In his request for a mistrial, Ranz argues that a person charged with a crime cannot use the database to check the criminal record of a juror.

The use of the computer database is sometimes used by prosecutors, they said, chiefly to check the truthfulness of jurors.

Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper said he rarely uses the database to check jurors, but does use it if he has reason to suspect a juror is lying.

"You'd probably be neglectful of your duties if you didn't," Piper said.

"If there is a question as to whether a juror is telling the truth, that is a criminal-justice purpose," said Michael Brooks, spokesman for the FBI in Cincinnati.

Even so, at least one local prosecutor said the practice is rare and should only be done in extraordinary circumstances.

"We don't do it, and we don't think it's appropriate," Assistant Clermont County Prosecutor Daniel Breyer said.

Federal prosecutors said they use NCIC to check jurors only if they are suspicious of their answers on jury questionnaires.

"It's not something we typically do," said Fred Alverson, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Greg Lockhart. "In 99 instances out of 100, we take their word for it."

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