Heath Jackson homicide update: Judge to rule Wednesday on Ricardo Strozier's challenge to grand jury pool

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 28, 2013 

Judge Gil McBride will decide Wednesday whether the grand jury that indicted Ricardo Strozier in the 2010 homicide of Heath Jackson adequately represented Muscogee County’s population demographics.

Strozier’s attorneys have challenged the July 2012 grand jury’s makeup, saying its ethnic proportions were based on Columbus’ 2000 census instead of 2010’s.

The lawyers also question the local six-person jury commission’s having to “force-balance” the grand jury’s demographics to reflect the 2000 census. In force-balancing, jury commissioners use voter rolls and drivers license records to add or delete potential jurors to reach a preferred percentage of a particular race or gender.

Georgia was to have ended the force-balance practice on July 1, 2012, when the state offered local courts an updated database of potential jurors from which to draw names at random. Strozier was indicted days later by a grand jury formed under the old system.

Defense attorneys have asked McBride to quash Strozier’s indictment and allow a new grand jury to indict him again — if the district attorney still wants to pursue the death penalty in Jackson’s fatal Sept. 7, 2010, shooting at his 1667 Carter Ave. home, where the local disc jockey came home to find an intruder in the house.

For that case and two other break-ins, Strozier has been indicted on charges of murder, aggravated battery, three counts of burglary and two each of armed robbery and using a firearm to commit a felony.

Were the demographics of the grand jury that indicted him found to be disproportionate to the county population, that could be a violation of his constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

Courts have set a high threshold for such a determination. Local jurisdictions must aim for a deviation of no more than 5 percent in the proportion of groups represented on the grand jury as compared to the total population, but that’s a goal, not a requirement. Courts have ruled a deviation of 10 percent is needed to prove a grand jury’s makeup is unconstitutional.

Defense attorneys had mathematician Jeffrey Martin testify Tuesday as an expert on such demographics. Martin said the Muscogee County jury commission used outdated figures to force-balance the pool of 4,802 jurors from which Strozier’s grand jury was drawn.

Because the commission relied on the 2000 census, it created a pool with too many whites and too few blacks, and didn’t even recognize Hispanics as a “cognizable” group worthy of proportional representation, Martin said.

Also the jury pool had 93 people, or 1.94 percent, whose race or ethnicity was listed as “unknown,” which is not a census category, Martin said.

Adding that percentage to any of the recognized demographic groups could further skew the proportions, he said.

Under District Attorney Julia Slater’s cross-examination, Martin acknowledged the grand jury pool’s demographic differences between the census of 2000 and of 2010 did not cross the 5 percent threshold — unless the 93 people labeled “unknown” were all of one race.

Were they all African-American, for example, then the jury pool’s deviation from the proportion of blacks in the county population would have been between 5 percent and 6 percent, Martin said.

Without adding all the unknowns, blacks were underrepresented in the grand jury pool by 3.12 percent, Martin said. Whites were overrepresented on the grand jury pool at 53.69 percent instead of 50.58 percent, he said.

In arguments over the defense motion to quash the indictment, Slater noted the courts have said a deviation of less than 10 percent is constitutional, so the indictment should stand. She also said jury commissioners are required by law to rely on the official census numbers compiled every 10 years — not intermediate updates or estimates in population changes — and that is what they did, because the 2010 census figures were not yet available to them.

Defense attorney Melinda Ryals countered that the jury commission could have used 2010 census numbers, had they taken the trouble to get that data.

She argued also that Strozier faces the death penalty, and a capital case must meet the highest standards of fairness, so having Strozier indicted by grand jurors randomly drawn from the state database the county’s now using is the preferred course.

McBride is to issue his ruling when the court resumes at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

DAY ONE

Here is Monday's report on the court proceedings:

Much of Monday’s Muscogee County Superior Court hearing to set rules for Ricardo Strozier’s capital murder trial was occupied instead with setting rules for Monday’s court hearing.

Defense attorney H. Burton Baker objected to his client’s having to wear an electronic ankle bracelet that, similar to a police Taser, would deliver an immobilizing shock were a deputy to trigger it. Baker called it a “torture device” and demanded it be removed, initiating testimony from Muscogee Sheriff’s Maj. Mike Massey on whether the mechanism was necessary.

Representing the division of the sheriff’s office that oversees courtroom security, Massey said the gadget concealed beneath Strozier’s clothing was being used in place of restraints such as handcuffs and shackles. Baker in pretrial motions already has objected to such visible restraints, arguing the sight of Strozier wearing fetters gives the impression he’s dangerous, prejudicing potential jurors.

Massey said the sheriff’s office feels restraints are warranted when a defendant’s charges indicate he could be dangerous.

Strozier has been indicted on 10 felony counts that include murder charges stemming from the Sept. 7, 2010, fatal shooting of Heath Jackson, who died outside his 1667 Carter Ave. home after confronting an intruder in the house. Other counts accuse Strozier of robbing another Columbus man at gunpoint after breaking into the resident’s home, and of breaking into a Virginia Street apartment where police say he stole the gun later used to shoot Jackson.

Under Baker’s questioning, Massey acknowledged Strozier has not caused any trouble in jail since he was arrested the day after Jackson’s homicide, nor has he given authorities any reason to suspect he would try to escape or harm anyone while in custody.

Judge Gil McBride ordered that the electronic bracelet be removed, but that Strozier’s ankles be chained together so he can’t flee. The judge also ordered any photographers in the courtroom not record Strozier’s waddling in and out in leg chains, to preclude prejudicing potential jurors who might see such images.

Baker also objected to the half-dozen deputies standing by Strozier in the courtroom, saying that also would have a prejudicial impact in creating the impression he needed additional guards. The uniformed officers later were dispersed so only a few were near the defendant.

With such disputes settled by noon Monday, the court moved on to Baker’s challenging the composition of the grand jury pool from which was drawn the panel that indicted Strozier on July 3, 2012.

The defense is questioning the demographic proportionality of that jury pool, which was configured based on Columbus’ population in the 2000 census. Georgia courts lately have tried to make the ethnicity and gender of jurors come within 5 percent of matching the demographics of their county.

Disproportionate grand juries can be ruled a violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights and research has shown some Georgia counties’ demographics change so rapidly that census figures soon become outdated.

Georgia last year sought to remedy such issues by establishing a state jury pool from which local courts can randomly choose jurors. But the grand jury that indicted Strozier was created under the old system, which required a jury commission to compare voter registration and drivers license records to “force-balance” the grand jury pool, adding or deleting names of potential jurors to try to match the ethnic and gender makeup of Columbus.

A key factor is ensuring “cognizable” groups within the overall population are represented and much of the defense questioning Monday focused on jury commissioners’ relying on the category of “others” for Hispanics, who according to the 2010 census now are 6.38 percent of Muscogee County’s population, having been just 4.5 percent in 2000.

When defense attorney Melinda Ryals asked jury manager Marsha Coram whether Hispanics should have been regarded as a group worthy of proportional jury representation, Coram said they were not at the time Strozier was indicted: “They were not in 2000,” Coram said of that census. “They were not 5 percent of the population.”

Muscogee County had not received official census data in time to balance jury pools according to the 2010 census, she said. It just started using the state’s juror database this past October, she said.

Though the defense is challenging the makeup of the entire grand jury pool of 4,802 people summoned last year, District Attorney Julia Slater asked Coram about the makeup of the panel that indicted Strozier.

Coram said it had 11 white men, nine black women, one black man and one white woman. But under Ryals’ cross-examination, Coram acknowledged some had been excused the day Strozier was indicted, leaving a panel of 11 white men, six black women and one white woman.

The court is to delve further into the grand jury pool’s makeup when proceedings resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday. McBride expects to hear pretrial motions through Wednesday and to hold another session on such motions Feb. 20-22.

Attorneys then may appeal his rulings to the Georgia Supreme Court before the rules for Strozier’s trial are set. The trial date remains uncertain.

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