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Jurors excluded ‘because of the color of their skin,’ Sacramento judge finds

Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones on Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones on Tuesday, March 28, 2017 jvillegas@sacbee.com

A federal judge has ruled that Sacramento County attorneys improperly excluded two African American jurors “because of the color of their skin” in an upcoming trial in which the plaintiff was black.

U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez made the finding of racial discrimination May 2 in a case where a former inmate is suing Sacramento County, Sheriff Scott Jones and three other sheriff’s employees over psychiatric care and use of force in the downtown jail.

In making his ruling, Mendez dismissed the jury that already had been selected earlier in the week and ordered that a new one be impaneled. The process will begin again May 8.

Jones had been sitting at the defense table with four attorneys for the county when the lawyers made peremptory challenges to the only two African Americans in the jury pool, according to an attorney for the plaintiffs. Peremptory challenges allow lawyers to dismiss potential jurors without offering an explanation.

“What’s happening here is that Sheriff Jones and the county have used discriminatory animus in their process of selecting a jury, and that simply should never be allowed to happen by a public entity and public officials,” one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Dan Stormer, said in an interview Wednesday. “They have a higher duty to the public and their constituencies.”

Stormer is one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case brought by the former inmate, James Joshua Mayfield, and his parents, James Allison Mayfield Jr., and Terri Mayfield. They filed suit after the younger Mayfield tried to commit suicide in the jail four years ago by jumping off his bunk head first. He wound up paralyzed.

Attorneys for the defense team did not return phone calls or emails Wednesday. A spokesman for the sheriff referred questions to the lawyers.

According to the court docket, the defense lawyers who were present for jury selection were Van Longyear, Richard Linkert and Nicole Cahill, who represented Sacramento County as well as Jones and two other Sheriff’s Department defendants, Undersheriff James Lewis and Capt. Rick Pattison. Carl Carnero, the attorney who represented defendant Deputy Ivan Orozco, also was present.

Stormer said he verbally lodged his “Batson challenge” – named for the federal case that bars racially based exclusions of prospective jurors – as soon as the defense lawyers had the African Americans removed. In his Tuesday ruling, Judge Mendez rejected the defense lawyers’ arguments that their exclusions were “race-neutral.”

One of the excluded prospective jurors, the defense said, had a friend who committed suicide – a potential prejudicial factor in a case where the plaintiff tried to take his own life – and also had been arrested for driving under the influence, according to the ruling. As for the second African American in the jury pool who was excluded, the defense lawyers said he was “extremely young,” lacked life experience and had “scant education,” Mendez’s ruling said.

In his finding of racial discrimination, Mendez said that the defense lawyers “used two of their five peremptory challenges to strike the only black jurors in a case involving a black plaintiff.” On the suicide issue, the judge noted that defense team did not move to strike three non-black jurors who said under questioning by attorneys on both sides that they had close friends or relatives who had committed suicide.

The defense lawyers argued that they did exercise a challenge on a fourth non-black juror who had a “loved one that committed suicide,” Mendez wrote. But that same juror “admitted he could not be impartial” while one of the African Americans who said he had a good friend who committed suicide told the lawyers that he could be fair, according to the judge.

As for the African American with the “scant education,” Mendez said that he “has some college” in his background while two of the non-black jurors who were not excluded only had high school degrees.

While the relatively young African American did appear to show his age, “Defense counsel did not request that the court ask any follow-up questions during voir dire concerning his actual age or other life experiences,” Mendez wrote.

“Thus, in reviewing the totality of the circumstances surrounding the exercise of peremptory challenges by Defense counsel in this case, the court finds that jurors #4 and #6 were excluded because of the color of their skin rather than their qualifications, or lack thereof, as a juror in this case,” Mendez wrote.

Quoting another case, Mendez wrote: “(R)acial discrimination in the qualification or selection of jurors offends the dignity of persons and the integrity of the Courts. To permit racial exclusion in this official forum compounds the racial insult inherent in judging a citizen by the color of his or her skin.”

In the case that’s going to trial, attorneys for plaintiff James Mayfield, now 22, say that jailers knew he was a suicide risk, that he had repeatedly tried it and that he had threatened to try it again by jumping off his bunk. Jail employees knew Mayfield had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, the suit said, but did not get his proper mental health care and put him in a cell with “known suicide hazards.”

The suit also alleges that deputies and inmates both physically attacked Mayfield while he was in jail.

The county has denied liability.

Before the trial began, Mayfield and his parents reached a $2.5 million settlement with Jail Psychiatric Services, which is administered by UC Davis Medical Center. The award is still subject to approval by Mendez, according to Stormer. A hearing on the approval is scheduled for June, Stormer said.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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