Kevin McGill | Contributor
New Orleans (AP) — Four African Americans can move ahead with a lawsuit seeking damages from a Louisiana district attorney’s office over the racial composition of juries, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Dee Drell in Alexandria ruled Monday in a 2015 lawsuit that alleges the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office ensures that juries are predominantly White by using its right to reject prospective jurors.
Drell’s order was only a partial victory for the Black residents and the civil rights group that filed the lawsuit. Drell refused to grant class-action status on behalf of all Black Caddo residents who are jury-eligible. And he dismissed much of the lawsuit, including a request that he block the Caddo prosecutor from using what are called “peremptory challenges” to reject African American jurors.
But Drell said four plaintiffs could continue pursuing damages for their allegations that their constitutional rights were violated because they were excluded from juries on the basis of race.
A trial date has not been set.
The lawsuit was filed by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. It cites data analysis by the anti-death-penalty group Reprieve Australia, which studied records of 332 criminal trials from Jan. 28, 2003, through Dec. 5, 2012 — a period spanning the tenures of two district attorneys, Paul Carmouche and his successor, Charles Scott, who died in 2015.
Amid other findings, the study says prosecutors exercised peremptory challenges against 46% of qualified African American jurors, but only 15% of qualified jurors who were not African American. When the MacArthur Center first made the allegations of discrimination in jury selection, Dale Cox, then the acting district attorney, denied that Black jurors were systematically rejected by prosecutors.
James Stewart, who became the first African American district attorney in Caddo shortly after the lawsuit was filed, has continued to fight for dismissal of the lawsuit. In court filings, attorneys for his office have called the plaintiffs’ claims “speculative, hypothetical and moot,” and noted that the alleged injustices happened before Stewart took office.