James Gill: Bill puts public in dark about courts

A bill filed in response to a case of jury tampering in Caddo Parish continues on its merry way through the Legislature, although its sponsors concede it will do nothing to prevent further violations.

It will, however, introduce an element of secrecy in trials, where the rights of the citizenry will never be secure without public scrutiny. Black people, with the odds already stacked against them, will be especially leery.

The impetus for the bill, authored by state Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Bossier City, was the conviction in February of Lamondre Tucker, who faces up to 33 years for leaning on a potential juror. Tucker probably won’t much care what his sentence is, because he has been on death row since 2011.

While Tucker was awaiting his murder trial, he discovered that a woman he knew, a foe of the death penalty, was in the jury pool. She dropped the nickel on him when he suggested she conceal her views during voir dire.

At the behest of prosecutors, Peacock filed a bill to exempt “any records or other information pertaining” to juries from the Public Records Law. That would have made such a mockery of the right to a public trial that a Senate committee declared it too sweeping, and Peacock retired to tone it down.

He returned last week with a revised bill that still keeps citizens in the dark as to what happens in their courts of law. The questionnaires that jurors must fill out are removed from the public domain and are made available only to “counsel for use in litigation as directed by the court.” The bill’s sole concession to our right to know is that clerks of court will continue to publish the names of citizens selected for jury duty in parish official journals, as the state Code of Criminal Procedure has always required.

That was enough for the committee, which waved the bill through to the Senate floor.

Caddo Parish District Attorney Charles Scott and Brady O’Callaghan, who worked as his assistant until his election as a judge last year, could not pretend, when they testified for Peacock’s bill before the Senate committee, they it would stamp out jury tampering. They did, however, testify that Tucker’s stunt had focused their attention on jury security and the need to safeguard confidential information, such as medical records.

They did not suggest that any juror had ever complained about an invasion of privacy, and it cannot be often that embarrassing medical conditions need to be revealed. If ever they are, a bill to keep prying eyes away from the relevant section of the questionnaire should be easy enough to fashion. But this one imposes blanket secrecy and would make it impossible to figure out whether jury selection in Louisiana is on the up and up.

Often, of course, it isn’t, and countless courts have determined that black people were improperly excluded from Louisiana juries. Whether a pattern of racial prejudice persists can be determined only if jury questionnaires are publicly available. The Peacock bill chips away at the right to a fair trial.

Peacock’s bill comes just after the release of Glenn Ford, a black man convicted of murder by an all-white Caddo Parish jury 30 years ago. Ford, the longest-serving prisoner on death row at Angola, had his conviction overturned after prosecutors found evidence that proved his innocence. It also comes just three years after the Confederate flag was finally removed from the Caddo Parish Courthouse in Shreveport, where a monument to four of the South’s Civil War generals still stands. You can see how the justice system in Caddo Parish might not enjoy the full confidence of its black citizens.

But the whole state, regardless of race, must wonder what problem the Peacock bill is designed to solve. It would make no sense to introduce such a fundamental change statewide on account of an isolated flap in Caddo Parish, even if the bill were remotely relevant to it.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.