A group of 13 protesters on Monday attempted to occupy Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine’s office at Sixth and Liberty streets in downtown Louisville.
The group, affiliated with the local chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, was seeking a meeting with Wine to discuss his recent request to Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton to recuse a black judge from all criminal cases after the judge made comments on his Facebook page accusing Wine of favoring all-white juries.
Jefferson Circuit Judge Olu Stevens was recently removed from two criminal cases after Wine complained to the state’s chief justice, saying Stevens’ accusations on the social networking site rendered him biased.
Wine has denied the allegations made by Stevens on Facebook.
The protesters entered the Old Jail Building around noon on Monday but failed to get inside Wine’s second floor office. Instead, they huddled outside the door holding signs and giving media interviews. Earlier this afternoon, a few were granted a meeting with Wine.
In a little more than a year, Stevens has twice dismissed jury panels in Jefferson County cases with black defendants because the juries lacked any black members. Wine has also asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to weigh in on whether the judge has the legal discretion to dismiss a jury panel because of racial imbalance.
Stevens, who has not given an interview, has said in court that the all-white juries he dismissed are not representative of the community. According to Census data, African Americans make up nearly 23 percent of the population in Louisville.
The chief justice is expected to issue a decision in the Facebook matter this week.
The dispute over Stevens’ accusations about Wine on Facebook has obscured a broader debate about racial imbalance on local juries, a point protesters are seeking to elevate.
They issued a list of demands Monday, including that Wine withdraw his motion to the state’s high court that Stevens be removed from all criminal cases. They’re also calling on Wine to issue a public apology to Stevens and remove the motion from his record.
After a meeting with a few of the protesters Monday afternoon, Wine reportedly declined to withdraw his motion.
Protesters also want Wine to investigate how jury pools are selected and how bias can interfere, said Chanelle Helm, an activist with Stand Up Louisville.
“If he can’t do that, then he needs to step down,” she said.
“The fact that Tom Wine would even entertain, then carry out, a motion on Judge Olu Stevens because he decided to throw out a jury twice that wasn’t the jury of someone’s peers who is black, that’s very racist and controversial,” Helm said.
Only 14 percent of potential jurors in Jefferson County in October were black, according to the state’s Racial Fairness Commission; the month before, the group estimated that figure was only 13 percent.
A Duke University study found that from 2000-2010, all-white juries in Florida convicted black defendants 16 percent more often than white defendants. Researchers found that figure went to nearly zero when at least one member of the jury was black.
Beyond retracting his motion to the state Supreme Court, however, it’s unclear how much Wine can do to meet protesters’ demands. In particular, he doesn’t have the legal authority to ensure representative juries.
Russell Weaver, a professor at the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law, said the county’s top prosecutor can only investigate the jury selection process if there is criminal conduct involved.
“The county clerk selects the jury pool and is expected to act in a racially non-discriminatory manner,” Weaver said. “The judge can intervene if he perceives racial bias. The Commonwealth’s Attorney is one of the parties to criminal cases, and is usually reactive. It should not discriminate on the basis of race in the selection of jurors. If there is criminal conduct in the selection of jurors, the Commonwealth’s Attorney should investigate and prosecute. Otherwise, the prosecutor isn’t responsible for constructing the jury pool.”
Featured image by Jacob Ryan/WFPL News.