The Public Square

Jan Kruse on Racial Prejudice in the Champaign County Jury System


My name is Jan Kruse and as a resident of Champaign County I wanted to share with listeners some unsettling experiences I recently had while serving as a Champaign County Juror.

I was notified of jury duty for the first week of January 2010. After going through security at the Champaign County Court House we walked up the steps to approach the jury assembly room. In the hallway a man was directing us toward the large room for jury service. Jurors had walked up the steps side by side with those arriving for trials. The person directing us seemed to instinctively know the white folks were prospective jurors and the black men and women were either going to court to face a jury or were the supportive family members accompanying them. It appeared I was one of approximately 125-150 potential jurists. We filled the large jury assembly room and the overflow west wing area as well. I was shocked to note that between both rooms only one black male was present to be considered for jury service. This was very troubling in light of the number of court cases that involve members of the minority community.

Eventually I was chosen for a jury and became one of twelve white people hearing a case brought against a young black man. I was troubled that his case was not going to be before a jury of his peers since not a single minority was serving on the jury. This fact has to affect the outcomes of many trials in Champaign County.

It was most troubling to hear fellow jurors use unacceptable racial terms in reference to the defendant. When I expressed that we were an all white jury, some jurors were offended that I had noticed this. The addition of persons of color as full partners in the deliberation process could have had a significant impact in this case. The lack of a minority person's voice is a failure of the judicial system to bring a missing, necessary and much needed perspective.

The *presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt* did not appear to be taken seriously by some during deliberation. Instead, I noted verbal pressure being asserted by some toward the undecided to join the majority and vote guilty. Reasonable doubt was not enough, in the face of *majority rule*.

The presence in that jury room of persons with a more diverse ethnic background may have considered the testimony and the evidence or lack of in this case and seen the defendant from a different perspective. A perspective seldom heard if the jury is of only one ethnic group.

The inability of the county judicial system to assure that each person has a fair trial (beginning with a jury of ones peers) is very disappointing to me. In addition as the trial continued it became obvious that the young man on trial was not being adequately represented. The lawyer did not appear to fully advocate for his client. It was made painfully clear that finances are required to obtain a fully engaged attorney to represent your best interests at trial. The combination of a jury not-of-his peers and the poor representation that is apparently all too common for poor people is a double whammy for the minority members of our community. An individual's race or financial status should not stand in the way of a fair trial in this county.

Until these concerns are fully addressed I contend justice will not be served for all citizens of Champaign County.