Queens prosecutor illegally removed Black jurors, court rules

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By Dan Sears

A state appellate court has thrown out a 2019 Queens robbery conviction, saying a prosecutor illegally barred three Black people from serving on the jury.

New York’s Appellate Division said prosecutors will have to try Stalin Vera again if they still want to seek a conviction. It’s one of a small but growing list of cases in which prosecutors are accused of illegally screening out jurors based on race or religion — many of them in Queens.

“Black citizens have the right to serve as jurors,” said Peter Santina, managing attorney of Civil Rights Corps’ Prosecutorial Accountability Project. “It’s unbelievable that we’re still having this conversation.”

The Queens district attorney’s office said it is reviewing the case and did not respond to questions. Vera’s attorney did not respond to requests Tuesday.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys screen potential jurors before a trial begins and are allowed to block a certain number of people from serving on the jury. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that attorneys cannot remove someone from the jury pool because of their race, gender or other protected characteristics, like religion.

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Various studies over the years have found more diverse juries deliberate better and reach more just verdicts at trial.

“Jurors bring their own experience and analysis of the world into their jury service,” said Santina, who last year helped to file 10 ethics complaints against current and former New York prosecutors who judges said had discriminated against potential jurors based on their race or religion.

In a brief ruling that dropped quietly between Christmas and New Year’s Day, a panel of judges determined that a prosecutor — who is not named in the ruling — failed to prove the DA’s office had removed three Black people from the jury pool for legitimate reasons. The ruling did not specify Vera’s race.

In addition to illegally striking Black people from the jury, the judges found the prosecutor also broke the rules during closing arguments by telling the jury, “I’m here asking you to strip [the defendant] of his presumption of innocence because, ladies and gentleman, he’s not.”

The judges called this an “unqualified pronouncement of the defendant’s guilt.”

Last year, Santina and other watchdogs with the group Accountability NY filed 10 ethics complaints against prosecutors across the state who had illegally screened out prospective jurors because of their race or religion. Six of those complaints named current and former members of the Queens DA’s office.

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One former prosecutor, Christopher McGrath, admitted to using notes during at least two trials in the 1990s that instructed prosecutors “look at people when being sworn for racial and sex makeup” and not to choose jurors “Hispanics” and “grandmotherly types.” It also included a list of the borough’s neighborhoods, accompanied by notes like “German + Irish,” “Good if good solid B person” and “take old timers.”

McGrath left the DA’s office in 1997 and went on to represent the NYPD’s largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association. Courts have since overturned several cases he prosecuted because of the jury selection notes.

The Queens DA’s office did not say Tuesday whether any of the current and former prosecutors had faced discipline since Accountability NY filed the grievances. Online records on the state court website show no public discipline.

Steve Zeidman, director of CUNY Law School’s criminal defense clinic, said it’s ironic that prosecutors in Queens have been discriminating against potential jurors, given that it’s one of the most diverse places in the country. He said it’s rare for judges to accuse prosecutors of misconduct during jury selection.

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“That’s not a legal technicality,” he said. “That’s profound. It’s incredibly troubling.”

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