More must be done to ensure diverse juries in Hennepin County

legal insights

We now know, according to Hennepin County Court, that the jurors who will decide Derek Chauvin’s fate include four who identify as Black and two as multiracial. While jury selection is not yet over, the last jurors chosen will be the alternates, who will only deliberate if a juror becomes unavailable due to an emergency. The 13th juror is a White woman, so we know the jury (the first 12) will consist of six White people and six people of color.   

In my experience, this is an unusually diverse jury for Hennepin County. According to the 2019 census data, Hennepin County is 74.2% White. Minneapolis, where George Floyd died, is 64% White. The Black population in Minneapolis is 19%, while in Hennepin County it is 13.8%.

Everyone has heard of the idea of having a jury of one’s peers. But what does that mean in Hennepin County where, in 2018, 45.7% of the public defender’s clients were Black?

In other words, what is the racial composition of the jury pool in Hennepin County? 

Earlier this year, a judge ordered Hennepin County Court Administration to release the summary data of the racial composition of the jury pool from December 31, 2019, to January 5, 2021. According to the 2019-year end summary, only 8.2% of the jury pool was Black. White prospective jurors made up 79.3% of the pool. This was an increase from the 2018-year end data, which revealed that only 7.7% of the pool was Black. 

The pandemic hit in early 2020, and by the end of the year, the Black percentage of the jury pool had dropped to 6.2%, while the White representation increased to 80%. In the first week of January 2021, the racial composition of the jury pool was only 3.8% Black, while the White population increased to 81%. 

Why doesn’t the racial composition of Hennepin County’s jury pool reflect the racial demographics in Hennepin County? You must begin with something called the “source list,” which is compiled by the state of Minnesota. The state produces the source list from the names of people who have driver’s licenses or a state identification card, or who are registered voters.

Minnesotans must be on one of these three lists to be placed on the state’s source list, from which every district gets its jurors. So, if you don’t have a driver’s license or a state ID, or if you haven’t registered to vote, you will not be summoned for jury duty. 

Every week, Hennepin County asks the state to summon a specific number of jurors. Before the pandemic, the county asked for 550, but higher failure to appear rates caused the county to increase its request to 600 every week. The state uses a randomized system to summon the number of jurors the county requests, who are then called in as needed.  

If a person does not appear, or check-in, after being summoned for jury duty, they are sent a “failure to appear” letter. This letter is not sent by certified mail, nor is the actual summons, so there is no way of knowing whether the person received either letter. The county does not keep data on those who do not respond, so there is no way to tell whether there are demographic patterns that could be addressed.    

What efforts is Hennepin County making to ensure that it has a more racially representative jury pool? Very little, as it turns out. According to a Hennepin County Jury Office Supervisor, they compile the racial composition data when ordered to do so by the court. Although they are aware that Hennepin’s Black population is underrepresented in the jury pool, they have done no research on why that might be the case.    

What they have done, at the request of a “justice partner,” is to redesign the jury summons and the website to make them more readable and to improve the call-in process. 

Other states are ahead of Minnesota in broadening the resources for their source lists. Those states use income tax records, unemployment, public assistance, and utilities records—in addition to the three resource lists used in Minnesota.  

Last week I wrote about a Black prosecutive juror who was excused from the Chauvin jury because of his lived experience. It is clear, however, from the racial demographic data of the jury pools that Hennepin County needs to do much more to make sure that Black men and women living in Hennepin County get the opportunity to serve on a jury.