Jury Duty

Peoria, Illinois, is located in the heart of the country and the heart of Illinois. While the population is predominantly white, it has grown more diverse over the years. Just over a quarter of the people who live in the city are African-American. The African-American population in Peoria County is lower, at about 17 percent. However, this diversity isn't being reflected in the jury pools.

A National Problem

Recently, the attorney for a man charged with home invasion robbery asked the judge to postpone the trial because none of the 42 prospective jurors were minorities. He argued that his client couldn't get a fair trial since he wouldn't have a jury of his peers. The judge agreed to a week's postponement.

This lack of racial diversity among Peoria County's jurors hasn't gone unnoticed. The head of Peoria's jury commission said, "The chief judge has been reviewing data for several months and considering ways in which the system can be improved in compliance with state and federal law."

Jurors Aren't Guaranteed to Be Racially Diverse

However, the law doesn't mandate that people of the defendant's race be on the jury. A 1991 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that "the right to an impartial jury does not carry with it the right to a jury of a particular racial composition." According to a Peoria attorney who also works for the Illinois State Bar Association, the state's only requirement is to look for jurors from a "fair cross section of the venire (jury pool)." In Illinois, jurors are chosen from among people with driver's licenses and state ID cards as well as registered voters and those receiving unemployment benefits. A computer program determines who is called. Who shows up for jury duty is a different matter.

Peoria County's chief public defender acknowledges that defendants of color may feel that they can't get a fair trial from an all-white jury. He says, "If I was a black man on trial for a felony offense in Peoria County and I saw 42 white people come into the room from which my jury would be selected, I would notice immediately and be very uncomfortable."

One of the key responsibilities of a criminal defense attorney is participation in the jury selection. If the attorney believes the jury pool can't give the defendant a fair trial, it is that attorney's responsibility to speak up.