- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - The legality of indictments from Harris County criminal grand juries could be questioned under a decades-old U.S. Supreme Court decision because of the extent that Hispanics are underrepresented, according to a newspaper report.

There are three times more adult Hispanics in the county than the number who serve on grand juries, 36 percent versus 12 percent, a Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1r9EBVS ) analysis found. Asians are underrepresented in Harris County to a similar degree as Hispanics, the analysis found.

Such disparities can violate equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, according to the 1977 high court decision in the Castaneda v. Partida case. Hidalgo County grand juries were found to be 39 percent Mexican-American, though the county population was 79 percent. The defendant’s indictment was thrown out.

Every court provided the newspaper the ages and occupations of about 1,900 grand jurors who served from 2007 to 2014, but 36 percent of courts had no records for race or ethnicity. Each court said it has black-and-white photocopies of driver’s licenses for every grand juror, but Texas does not require race or ethnicity to be listed.

The courts that were able to provide a racial breakdown drew information from applications for those who served on grand juries, but most did not have complete years and only went back as far as 2009.

The analysis was based on 410 of those applications, which came from 12 of the 22 courts.

Whites and blacks are overrepresented, the review found. Fifty-eight percent of grand jurors are white, compared with 37 percent in the county. Twenty-four percent of grand jurors are black, compared with 18 percent in the county, the newspaper reported.

The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure states that commissioners “shall … select grand jurors who …represent a broad cross-section of the population of the county, considering the factors of race, sex, and age.”

Sandra Guerra Thompson, a criminal law professor at the University of Houston Law Center, says that while the law’s intent is clear, its wording is vague.

She says “‘shall’ is normally mandatory,” but added that grand juries do not have to be exactly proportional to the population.

Harris County’s use of the “key man” system, in which judges choose the commissioners who provide names of possible jurors, is to blame for lack of diversity, state Sen. John Whitmire said. He has introduced a bill to get rid of “key man” selection.

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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