Iowa court affirms process that may exclude Black jurors

Feb 4, 2022, 11:01 AM | Updated: 2:17 pm

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday rejected a Black man’s argument that he was denied his right to an impartial jury because of a flawed process that excluded Black people and resulted in only white jurors.

It is the second time the state’s high court heard an appeal from Kenneth Lee Lilly, who was convicted for helping a relative rob a southeastern Iowa bank in 2016. Lilly alleged that his right to an impartial jury under the U.S. and Iowa constitutions was violated because neither his jury nor the group from which his jury was selected included any Black people.

Lilly, 57, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for robbery with a mandatory 17 1/2 years to be served before parole eligibility. He was accused of driving Lafayette A. Evans, a relative from Nashville, Tennessee, to a branch of the Fort Madison Bank on June 29, 2016. Evans fired several shots in the bank and at a police officer. He ran away with $224,000 in a backpack but was shot and killed by officers.

Lilly was tried in Lee County, where about 3% of the population of 33,000 is Black.

His attorney, Shellie Knipfer-Mcclellan, said Lilly was disappointed in the outcome.

“Nevertheless, our hope is that there will be continued work to improve the jury system to fulfill the constitutional guarantee of an impartial jury drawn from a fair cross-section of the community,” she said.

David Walker, a retired Drake University Law professor who wrote a brief to the court for the NAACP supporting a new trial for Lilly, said his case and others in recent years have helped improve jury management practices in Iowa, but that work remains to ensure proper balance.

“The big picture and the long race is to work in all ways at all levels to secure jury pools and panels that represent a fair cross section of the community and are more likely to yield a jury drawn from a fair cross section,” he said. “A decision in an individual case doesn’t alter that.”

The attorney general’s office declined to comment about the ruling.

In the first appeal in 2019, the court returned Lilly’s case to the district court for a hearing on whether his rights were violated by the jury selection process. The judge rejected his claims and Lilly again appealed.

The court upheld the lower court’s decision that he failed to prove Black citizens are excluded from jury pools because they are underrepresented in the voter registration and driver’s license lists from which names are drawn in Iowa.

Lilly claimed that low-income people tend to register to vote and to acquire driver’s licenses and nonoperator identification cards at a lower rate than other members of the community. He also said Black citizens make up a higher percentage of low-income people in Lee County. And he inferred that Black people are underrepresented in the lists from which jury pools are sourced.

In hearing his case the first time, the court established that such jury pool challenges must identify a practice that led to the underrepresentation, and it cannot be “run-of-the-mill” jury management practices.

Many states use voter registration and driver’s license identification lists to construct a list from which to draw jury pools, Justice Matthew McDermott wrote for the court, which unanimously agreed. The lists are the only ones that Iowa law requires courts to use in drawing jury pools.

“Because he challenges a run-of-the-mill practice, and no other practices, Lilly cannot show a violation under the Sixth Amendment,” the court said. The court also concluded Lilly’s challenge under the Iowa Constitution fails because he offered no evidence to establish that low-income people register to vote or get driver’s licenses or nonoperator identification cards at lower rates.

While all seven justices agreed with the outcome, Justice Edward Mansfield, joined in his opinion by Justice Brent Appel, left the door open to such challenges, saying if it is found that “a practice that leads to systematic underrepresentation of a distinctive group in jury pools can be identified and corrected, there is no reason to shield that practice from scrutiny just because it is relatively commonplace.” He said Iowa lawyers are gathering data.

Justice Christopher McDonald, in a separate opinion joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Thomas Waterman, was more willing to block such challenges, saying allowing such cases to continue to surface “is undermining the administration of justice, rendering it incredibly difficult simply to have a jury trial without months of discovery, expensive motion practice, expensive expert witness testimony, and days of hearings.”

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Iowa court affirms process that may exclude Black jurors