A defense attorney says an apparent attempt to save money in 9th Judicial District Court could wind up costing taxpayers thousands more in new trials.
The court clerk's office segregated prospective jurors who only spoke Spanish into a single panel — one of five panels of prospective jurors assembled Aug. 1 for the current court term that ends Nov. 30.
"Unfortunately," said defense attorney James Klipstine, "the United States Supreme Court has said you can't do that."
Klipstine has already filed a request arguing for a new trial in the Sept. 27 second-degree murder conviction of Guadalupe Flores, citing the existence of the panel. Other area defense lawyers are scrambling to do the same.
Flores was accused of running a car off the road in November 2011 driven by her boyfriend Anthony Mah that ended in a crash killing Brandon Vann, a passenger in the Mah car.
The existence of the panel was confirmed Thursday by Chief Judge Ted Hartley, who said a letter explaining the situation was recently mailed to all defense attorneys who had argued cases since Aug. 1.
Hartley declined any further comment beyond contents of the letter, which wasn't immediately available.
Court Manager Shelly Burger, who runs the clerk's office, also declined comment.
Transcripts from a recent case obtained by the CNJ, however, indicate Hartley, Mowrer and Judge Stephen Quinn met about two weeks ago with District Attorney Matt Chandler to discuss the problem and how to fix it.
During his on-the-record discussion, Quinn said the clerk's office picked out all the Spanish-speaking potential jurors who would need interpreters from the list of randomly selected juror candidates provided by the state. Those potential jurors were then all placed on Panel 1.
Quinn noted during the hearing "we talked about our plan for this month, for November coming up, and the issue related to the placement of all Spanish-speaking jurors that needed interpreters on one panel … a cost-saving matter…"
In an email response to the CNJ, Chandler said he learned of the panel from an unidentified defense attorney.
"At that time, I immediately reported what I heard to Chief Judge Teddy Hartley," Chander said. "I then went to the clerk and asked her if it were true, and she gave me a brief rendition of what she did and her reasoning behind it. I then immediately went back to Chief Judge Hartley and told him what I learned. I also told him that all defense attorneys that tried a jury trial since August should be advised of the issue and he agreed."
Despite the assembly, Chandler said he believed Flores got a fair trial from an impartial jury, "which, according to their (jurors') questionnaires, was made up of seven Hispanics, two African Americans, one failure to claim, and two Caucasians."
"Neither party knew how the district court impaneled the (Spanish-speaking only) jurors until well after the trial," Chandler said. "However, I believe Ms. Flores faced a panel of 12 qualified citizens that were randomly selected by both parties during jury selection, and when the parties rested their case at the end of the week this jury deliberated diligently and returned a just verdict of guilty on all counts."
Chandler also said, "To my knowledge, this is the first time the district court clerk has ever assembled the panels in this fashion."
Klipstine said he believes the court will have no other choice than to spend thousands of dollars on a new trial for Flores. He also said he doesn't think impaneling a Spanish-speaking only pool of jurors was anything more than a well-intentioned mistake.
"I don't believe there was any hidden agenda on anybody's part," Klipstine said. "I don't think there was any sinister intent."
However, Klipstine said, "The case law is pretty specific. You can't move jurors from one panel to another for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications. The Supreme Court basically said no, it's the accused's right to have fair representation on a jury and it must be one done (selected) at random."
Quinn stressed in his on-the-record remarks that no juror was removed from a panel.
"From the outset," Quinn said, "beginning with the pool as it came down from Santa Fe, all of the Spanish-speaking jurors were placed on (one) panel…"
Chandler echoed Quinn's remarks, noting "From what I understand at this point, no jurors were removed from any panel. Rather, when the district court clerk was entering the panels into the computer for randomization, she put all jurors that needed an interpreter on one panel."