Jury selection is scheduled to start this morning in Mayor Eddie A. Perez's bribery and larceny trial, and his lawyer has made it clear to everyone in the case that he will be looking hard at the racial makeup of the jury pool.
Perez, who is in his third term, is Hartford's first Hispanic mayor. In court papers, attorney Hubert Santos says he sees two issues that could deprive Perez of a jury of his peers: the expected eight-week length of the trial, which is actually two criminal cases consolidated into one; and the underrepresentation of minorities in Hartford jury pools.
Santos contends that the prospects of a long trial could burden prospective minority jurors because they might be less able to afford to spend weeks in court. Superior Court Judge Julia Dewey disagreed with Santos' assertions in a hearing last week, saying that there are Latinos and African Americans who work for large corporations in Greater Hartford that pay employees while they serve on juries.
Judicial officials keep no data on the racial makeup of jury pools and have not formally studied the issue, said Kay Berris, jury administrator for the state court system.
Jury pools at Superior Court in Hartford vary from day to day. Judicial officials say an overrepresentation of whites from the suburbs in one pool might be countered the next day by an overrepresentation of African Americans or Hispanics.
Prospective jurors are drawn from the 19 communities of Greater Hartford, using the driver's license registry, voter registration rolls, a list of people who have received unemployment benefits in the past year and a list of people who have filed state tax returns in the past year.
Berris said the court system sends out more jury-service notices in Hartford than anywhere else in the district, although she acknowledged that the number of summonses that are returned as undeliverable is higher in the city than in the surrounding towns. She said the judicial branch has address-updating software and resends summonses that are returned.
Will Race Matter?Some experienced criminal lawyers in Hartford and noted civil-rights lawyer John Brittain said that overall, Hartford jury pools don't represent the city's racial diversity.
Hartford's population is about 27 percent white, 38 percent black or African American, and 40 percent Latino or Hispanic, which includes Caucasians and blacks, according to census figures.
In the early 1990s, a federal judge ruled that juries in federal cases in Hartford came from jury pools that had unconstitutionally low numbers of African Americans and Hispanics. In federal cases, jurors are drawn from an 84-community area that includes Hartford and New Britain. As a result of his finding, Judge T.F. Gilroy Daly in August 1992 dismissed an indictment against a defendant in the Wells Fargo robbery case. He ruled that the lack of minority representation on the grand jury that indicted Luis Colon Osorio violated his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.
Currently, the family of Jashon Bryant, a black man who was shot and killed by former city police Det. Robert Lawlor, who is white, is challenging Lawlor's acquittal by an all-white jury at Superior Court in Hartford in December. Bryant's family has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a civil-rights investigation.
Two trial lawyers interviewed for this story said they did not believe that the racial makeup of the jury in the Perez case would matter. A panel of six jurors and two alternates will be selected. More important than race, said the lawyers, is intelligence, an open mind and a willingness to give an accused politician a fair shot.
"I understand [Santos'] motions," said defense lawyer Gerald Klein. "But it's hard to find a juror of any race who is going to hold onto that presumption of innocence in a corruption case, where a politician is accused of taking graft."
For this reason, defense lawyer Michael Georgetti said, if he were defending Perez, he would try to avoid having any Hartford residents on the jury panel.
"Frankly, I think you could argue that the victim in this case is the people of the city of Hartford. If I were a Hartford taxpayer, I don't think I could sit fairly on this jury," said Georgetti, who represented Lawlor in the Hartford shooting case. "But I could sit on a case that involved another city's mayor."
The ChargesPerez, 53, is charged with receiving a bribe, fabricating physical evidence, and conspiracy to fabricate physical evidence. He is accused of accepting free or discounted work on his home from a developer — family friend Carlos Costa — who has received millions of dollars in city contracts.
The mayor is also charged with criminal attempt to commit first-degree larceny by extortion for allegedly allowing political power broker Abraham Giles to operate parking lots at bargain-basement rents, in the absence of valid contracts with the city. In return, investigators said, Giles, a former Perez adversary, threw his political weight behind the mayor.
Perez, the first to serve in Hartford's new "strong-mayor" system of government, runs a city that grapples with crime, budget deficits, high taxes and a downtown identity crisis. On his watch, city schools are performing better, some downtown projects have been completed and there has been more funding from city hall for arts and culture.
Perez maintains his innocence and still has a base of support.
But even his allies have acknowledged that defending himself against these felony charges is a time-consuming distraction.
Still, Santos wants to be able to draw jurors from Hartford. He says in court papers that the "absence of minority representation on jury panels and a generalized anti-Hartford bias from the towns and cities surrounding Hartford may make it impossible for the defendant to receive a fair trial in the Judicial District of Hartford."
On that basis, Santos asked Dewey for permission to move the trial if Santos feels the jurors who are picked for the case could not render a fair verdict. Dewey rejected the request.Copyright © 2015, CT Now