Beavers: Jury selection fundamentally flawed

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2-City-_Beavers.jpgWilliam “Bill” Beavers

A former Cook County commissioner has asked a judge to toss his tax-evasion convictions, alleging the system for picking would-be federal jurors in northeastern Illinois was fundamentally flawed and led to no black men on his jury.

William Beavers, who is black, argues in a motion filed this week in U.S. District Court in Chicago that a jury of his peers in such a geographically diverse region should have included at least a few black males.

A jury of 10 whites, one Hispanic and one African-American female convicted the Democrat two months ago of using campaign funds to gamble without reporting it as income.

While the trial otherwise focused on dry tax issues, it attracted widespread attention because of Beavers, who gained a reputation as an old-school Chicago politician with shoot-from-the-hip swagger.

As jury selection began at his March trial, Beavers’ attorneys immediately objected that there were no black men and only a few African-American women in the 50-person pool of prospective jurors.

Judge James Zagel refused a defense request to replace that initial pool, saying at the time that so few African-Americans was unusual but not statistically impossible.

Every two years, 50,000 names have been selected randomly from voter registrations in the eight-county court district. They serve as a master list, from which jury pools for individual trials are chosen.

The 26-page motion filed late Monday contends that drawing would-be jurors randomly from registration lists was more likely to exclude African-Americans and to include whites.

It claims more than 17 percent of the eligible jury population is black but only 14 percent made it onto the 2009 master list. But with a 66 percent white jury-eligible population, the list was 76 percent white.

Only recently — according to a decision made last year — did the district begin selecting its master lists of potential jurors using not just voter registration lists but driver’s license and other state IDs, the filing says. The master list in place for Beavers’ trial was chosen before the change was implemented.

“This change is an implicit admission that there is a problem with pulling originally only from voter registration rolls,” the filing says.

The district court’s clerk, Tom Bruton, declined comment Tuesday because it is a pending legal matter. A prosecutors’ spokesman, Randall Samborn, also declined comment.

Motions for new trials on the basis of an allegedly faulty jury rarely prevail.

“Maybe it does feel like it wasn’t a jury of Mr. Beavers peers, but it’s something defendants deal with all the time,” said Alan Tuerkheimer, a Chicago-based jury consultant. “No one ever gets the perfect jury.”

To prevail, Beavers would have to show a jury with a different racial makeup would likely have arrived at a different verdict. That will be a hard case to make, Tuerkheimer said.

“People just assume race is predictive,” he said. “Sometimes people are more critical of people in their so-called group.”

And allowing Beavers a new trial on grounds jury-selection procedures improved since his trial would open the floodgates to such claims every time adjustments are made to the selection process, he said.

Jury selection isn’t the only shortcoming of the trial alleged in the defense motion.

Among other criticisms, it says Zagel was wrong to prohibit the defense from telling jurors that Beavers amended his returns and repaid money to his campaign — albeit after he learned he was under investigation.

Beavers was convicted of four tax-evasion counts, with each carrying a maximum three-year prison term. A sentencing date has not been set.

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