Legislative Jury Composition Rule negatively affects court cases statewide

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

Griffin Judicial District Attorney Scott Ballard is facing a dilemma plaguing prosecutors statewide – the possibility of convicted felons being included in the pool from which trial and grand jurors are selected.

According to Ballard, this situation is the result of a legislative change that widened the pool from which jurors are chosen. Prior to the enactment of House Bill 415 – also known as the Jury Composition Reform Act of 2011 – jury pools were culled from voter registration lists. However, the legislative change broadened the jury composition rule, or the mechanical process from which jurors are chosen, to include Georgia residents with driver’s licenses, and state identification cards issued by the Department of Driver Services, which Ballard said has resulted in unforeseen complications.

Georgia law states that convicted felons may not serve on juries unless their civil rights have been restored by the Board of Pardons and Parole. This legislative change directly impacted Spalding County when it was discovered two convicted felons had served on the February grand jury.

“That’s a common issue we (district attorneys) have had to deal with state wide,” Ballard said. “They think that because they’re off probation, their civil rights have been restored, but they have to actually ask the Board of Pardons and Paroles to have their rights restored.”

Spalding County Clerk of Superior Court Marcia Norris said once a felon’s sentence has been completed, they do regain the right to vote, and she believes that leads many to the false assumption Ballard described.

Norris explained that prior to Gov. Nathan Deal signing HB 415 on May 3, 2011, the process remained largely the same as it had for many years, requiring her to produce a jury pool that represented the county’s demographic makeup as determined by the most recent census, including such factors as age, race and sex.

“That’s how we balanced the jury box that juries were selected from, with separate boxes (or groupings) for trial and grand juries,” she said.

At that time, Norris would routinely compose a list of Spalding County convicted felons and submit the information to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, who would in turn report the information to the Spalding County voter registrar. Individuals ineligible to vote were then removed from the voter registration roll, thus insuring their names would not be presented as potential jurors.

However, prosecutors state wide have learned that the jury pool compilation process, which is administered by the Council of Superior Courts of Georgia, has failed to purge ineligible individuals from the lists provided to each individual county’s Superior Court clerk.

In fact, Norris said the list the Council of Superior Courts of Georgia provided her office contains more names than the 2010 Spalding County census population total.

“I wish they (legislators) had just anticipated what would have seemed to be an obvious issue before they tampered with the law,” Ballard said, adding that he was unaware of any problems with the prior Jury Composition Rule. “I think it’s horrible that cases are jeopardized because, quite frankly, the state didn’t do what it should have done. I really don’t know why they thought they had to tinker with the law.”

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