CHAMPAIGN — University of Illinois College of Law students watching courtroom proceedings in Champaign County have observed an improvement in jury composition, according to their professor.
"We've made progress on diversity," said Steve Beckett, director of the UI College of Law trial advocacy program and an Urbana defense attorney.
The seventh report of the Champaign County Courtwatching Project, covering observations of courtrooms in 2010 and 2011 by UI trial advocacy students and representatives of the League of Women Voters of Champaign County, was released Thursday by Beckett and colleagues from the UI and League of Women Voters who participated in its preparation.
The report echoed a refrain familiar from all the previous reports: Most of the defendants in Champaign County felony criminal cases are young African-American males.
"This year, we also report significant improvement in the observed composition of the jury pools relative to the population of Champaign County, based on census data. For the first time, the number of expected African-American jurors is not significantly under-represented, even while white jurors are still over-represented in jury pools and seated juries," the report overview said.
"That's encouraging," said Beckett. "That means, in my view, that the efforts to modify the jury questionnaire, to go from a two-week to one-week (jury) term, and to do community outreach to remind folks of their civic responsibility, have all borne fruit," he said. "In particular, the African-American women who appear for jury service is spot on. It's where you would expect it to be."
Deric Orr and Yulia Chembulatova are third-year UI law students who took part in the 12 required hours of courtroom observation. Both found the experience eye-opening.
"It's disproportionately white, unquestionably," Orr said of those who respond to the call for jury service. "For whatever reason, I'm not sure that everyone is getting to court who's being called.
"The point of a jury is to be a representation of the community. It seems like a failure of the system if (a jury) only represents a specific part of the community," said Orr.
"Jurors are being asked to use their common sense to be able to understand a defendant's particular circumstances. If the pool is coming from a completely different background, then it prejudices the defendants," said Chembulatova. Despite proclamations by jurors that they can set aside preconceived notions and be fair, "subconsciously they bring in their biases and prejudices," she opined.
The most under-represented on juries are Asian males.
Based on the county population, 23 Asian males would have been expected in a pool in 2011. The number was six, the report showed. That same group has also been under-represented in the previous four years, the report said.
Beckett said in general, women of all races tend to show up for jury service more than men.
"I'm not sure what the dynamic is. Maybe females can get away from work with less consequence," he said.
Orr said he's found people who serve are usually glad they did.
"Most people I know feel good about it because they're surprised how much thought people put into things," Orr said. "Don't be afraid of jury duty. Go. A lot of people feel so much better about the criminal justice system after they go to jury service," he said.
Other findings in the report included:
— In almost 95 percent of the observations, defendants appeared to understand their rights fully, very well, or reasonably well.
— Judges appear to be "very respectful" to parties in the vast majority of cases. There were only five observations where judges were assessed as "somewhat disrespectful."
— Defense attorneys led the way in being somewhat or very pleasant (74.3 percent of the observations) compared to prosecutors or plaintiffs' attorneys (66.9 percent), and judges (58.4 percent.)
"The lower pleasant factors for judges is explainable, in part, by some admonishments to court-watching law students to behave themselves, where the law student claimed to have caused no disturbance," the report said.