For family members of Dylan Redwine, the 13-year-old boy killed in 2012, the latest postponement of the trial of Mark Redwine, Dylan’s father and alleged killer, must feel like torture.
A mistrial was declared in the high-profile case by District Judge Jeffrey Wilson on Nov. 9 after COVID-19 scares – both for the judge, and later, for defense attorneys. The trial has been postponed until at least late January 2021.
Along the way, developments in the aborted jury selection process caused us consternation. The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office conducted an unasked-for background check through its records management system and provided information about 1,094 potential jurors to District Attorney Christian Champagne’s office.
Defense attorney John Moran said that gave the prosecution an unfair advantage as jury selection began. Champagne said he turned over the document to Moran as soon as he got it.
Jury selection apparently was not a factor in the judge’s decision to declare a mistrial.
It’s de rigueur for attorneys on both sides of a jury trial to seek information about potential jurors, in order to seat jurors whom they believe will be sympathetic to their positions and reject those who won’t. This notion rests on the presumption that our backgrounds predict our biases.
In some respects, this wrangle between the two attorneys in the Redwine case represented merely the opening jab and parry in what will likely be a protracted bout. But our concern here is not about the Redwine case per se; it’s that the Sheriff’s Office decided to take such research into its own hands and then not share the results with the defense as well as the prosecution. While it is the job of the sheriff to support the prosecution – both are part of law enforcement – he must also be careful not to take actions that might compromise the trial by setting up potential appeals issues and/or undermine public trust in his ethical judgment. (Sheriff Sean Smith, through Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, declined comment because the trial is underway.)
According to Graham, the database is typical of those kept by almost all law enforcement agencies. About 56,000 names have been registered in the database since its 2009 inception.
Moran said the information provided included if a potential juror had been the victim of child or sexual abuse, had a history of drug use, was known to be suicidal, was the parent of a runaway child, or went through contentious divorces – among other issues.
It is troubling that the private lives of more than 1,000 people were made accessible without reason. Should sensitive personal information about potential jurors be revealed to an unnamed and unknown number of people? Is this the price, in 2020, of jury service?
On its surface, jury selection seems to be of less importance than evidentiary aspects of criminal trials, but in many cases it is of utmost importance, particularly for the defendant. (It is well-documented, for example, that all-white juries are more likely to convict Black defendants than white defendants.) If potential jurors are vetted secretly, how can citizens trust that criminal trials are decided by a “jury of one’s peers,” rather than kissing kin to the “show trials” of authoritarian regimes?
The background examination of potential jurors, known as voir dire – from the old French, often translated, “to speak the truth” – originally was conducted through a Q-and-A in open court, providing a level of transparency that has all but disappeared with the proliferation of digital information sources. We can’t turn back the hands of time. But in a democracy, the public deserves to know the sources of information used in jury selection, and potential jurors should have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to the use of law enforcement data. When and if such data – acquired and managed with taxpayer money – is to be used for jury selection, it should be done so only upon request, and be delivered in a fair and timely manner to both sides in any criminal trial.
A previous version of this editorial suggested defense attorney John Moran spoke to a reporter about the case. Moran’s comment were made in open court.