As Jury is Selected for Padilla, Race Matters

Osama's thug?

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The trial of Jose Padilla is off and crawling: yesterday, after three weeks of legal wrangling (the whole process usually takes a day), lawyers from both sides sat down and agreed on a jury. It took them a while to do that, as well.

The rules were as follows: from a pool of some hundred potential jurors, lawyers were to choose twelve, with six alternates. Each side was given a large number of preemptory "strikes," – 30 for the government, 36 for the defense -- to disqualify a given candidate from serving on the jury.

At the get-go, the defense accused the government of having excluded potential jurors because they were Muslim or were related to Muslims. The government, represented by John C. Shipley, shot back that “There is no basis whatsoever for those claims.”

From there, the name of the game was race. As the parties accepted or struck down names, two kinds of objections emerged: the defense vehemently put forth that the government was shooting down all of its black females, and the government maintained that the defense was excluding white and Hispanic (“Non-African American” is how they put it) men from the jury.

It was a bitter fight, but a repetitive one: Each time the government struck a black female or the defense struck a non-black male, the other side promptly objected, maintaining that the other showed a “pattern” of illegal discrimination. Each time, Judge Cooke asked the offending side to explain their strike.

After one white juror was struck, for example, Shipley pointed out that the defense had used six strikes against white males. “Not only does the jury not have any white men, but there is not a single Hispanic; there is not a single non-African-American male in that jury box right now.”

Padilla defense attorney Anthony Natale’s response: “This is the man who said that if the defendants did not defend themselves and there was any evidence against them at all, he would assume they were guilty.”

When the government struck two black men in a row, the defense objected, and it was Shipley’s turn to defend his strike: “This is the individual who says he believes a lot of people are imprisoned unfairly . . . and he said he had no opinion on 9/11,” he argued.

Judge Cooke declined to override either party’s strikes.

Still, it wasn’t impossible to predict the fate of a juror by their last name: in the defense’s potential juror graveyeard were piled the corpses of dozens of Hispanic- and Anglo-sounding last names – lots of Gomezes and Godfreys, for example – and on the governments side were a number of – let’s say, -- Jacksons, Joneses, and Jeffersons.

The final line-up: four Hispanic, five Black, and three White. Of the six alternates, four are Hispanic, one is White, and one is an Egyptian Muslim.

So what does all of this say about racial bias and allegiance in America? It’s hard to tell. A Puerto-Rican-American-turned Muslim, Padilla is himself something of a conundrum. Padilla’s lawyers seem (although, again, they deny racial bias) uneager to put their chips on a sympathetic jury of Cuban-Americans, opting instead for African-American jurors. The government, it would seem, agrees with this logic– at one point they had struck some four or five black jurors in a row.

What’s most fascinating about this jury, perhaps, is that it is composed of a majority of minorities -- America’s two largest minority groups are Hispanics, followed by blacks – charged with hearing the case of someone who defies easy categorization.

The issue of racial allegiances, sympathies, and biases will likely fade into the background as evidence is presented. And Blind Date this trial is not: we won’t hear the individual jurors’ thoughts as the case against Padilla is presented. But if the lawyers are right about this trial, race matters -- and don’t forget it. --Isaiah Thompson

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