Jury selection bias nullifies sex trial

Posted Oct. 28, 2008, at 8:43 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6 a.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — A Washington County Superior Court judge Tuesday declared that the jury selection process in the trial of a Calais man charged with three counts of sexual abuse of a minor was “tainted.”

Judge E. Allen Hunter dismissed the trial involving Troy M. Claridge, 37, of Calais and sent the jurors home. It likely will be next year before the case is placed on the trial list and a new jury selected.

Claridge was charged in November 2006 with three counts of sexual abuse of a minor involving two 14-year-old girls from Calais. The incident allegedly happened at his home in Calais.

First Assistant District Attorney Paul Cavanaugh said Tuesday he first raised the issue during jury selection on Oct. 15 when he questioned whether defense attorney Donald Brown of Brewer violated the selection process by excluding nine women — eight regular and one alternate — from the jury panel.

Cavanaugh raised the issue again Friday and again in court Tuesday morning. The jury that had been chosen for the trial consisted of 14 jurors — 12 regular and two alternates — of whom 12 were men and two were women.

Cavanaugh said the state would go forward with the trial if Claridge agreed that the jury selection process was acceptable to him and that he would not challenge his attorney’s handling of the process if Claridge were found guilty.

Grounds for appealing a guilty verdict could include a claim that the jury selection process was not acceptable to Claridge.

After a short recess and a conference among the prosecutor, defense attorney and judge in the judge’s chambers, Hunter asked Brown whether his client agreed to Cavanaugh’s proposal. Brown said Claridge did not agree.

Hunter then explained the legal implications.

He said that in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Batson vs. Kentucky that under the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, it was wrong for blacks to be excluded from the trial of a black defendant.

In their ruling, the majority of justices said that “any selection procedures that purposefully exclude black persons from juries undermine public confidence in the fairness of our system of justice.”

The protection clause also extends to gender, ethnic origin and religious persuasion.

The judge said that since the state had raised the issue that there was “purposeful and improper” jury selection on the part of the defense attorney, the issue needed to be addressed before the jury could be seated.

Hunter noted that during jury selection, Brown had excluded eight female jurors and one alternate female juror. He said the court had the right to question him on his motivation juror by juror and it was up to Brown to explain his decisions.

Brown said his client had instructed him not to answer.

“I find myself in difficult circumstances,” he said, adding that there were arguments he could make in defense of his juror selections but his client’s instructions prevented him.

The judge said he had no recourse but to concur with the state’s challenge.

“On the basis of presentation, the jury selection process is tainted. I can’t find anything else,” Hunter said.

“There is no demonstration on the part of your attorney to show that the jury was not tainted,” Hunter said, directing his statement to Claridge.

When the jurors returned to the courtroom, the judge briefly explained that they were being dismissed.

“In the course of selection of the panel,” the judge said, “we have seen a discriminatory process achieved excluding women. I made the determination that the panel was not properly selected.”

The judge apologized for any inconvenience and dismissed them.

Brown said afterward that he did nothing wrong.

“In my experience I never had a prosecutor raise the issue of discrimination, and I wasn’t particularly well-versed in the Supreme Court case on that. The issue came up today and the judge dealt with it,” he said.

Asked why he chose to exclude the women, Brown said, “I have reasons for each of the selections, not gender-based at all.” He did not elaborate.

Brown also refused to comment on the judge’s ruling that the process was “tainted.”

“The judge made his ruling. I am not going to comment on what the judge made for a decision. It is what it is,” he said.

Cavanaugh said afterward that he raised the issue because it went to the heart of the system.

“This issue is on the record now,” he said. “What I was most worried about was trying the case with an unbalanced panel. [Say] they returned a guilty verdict. Mr. Claridge then jumps up and down and says, ‘Wait a minute, my attorney struck women, I didn’t want to. We ought to have had some women on this panel.’ At that point I don’t know how you defend it as a fair process. Then we have to go back and have a another trial.”

Asked why Brown didn’t explain why he had excluded the women, Cavanaugh said, “Mr. Brown can now say he had perfectly legitimate reasons. Why didn’t he share that with the court? Why did he stand there mute and undo all this hard work and delay this case another four months at least?”

Claridge remained free on bail Tuesday night.

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