PASCO — During two recent Franklin County murder trials, potential jurors were asked whether they believe immigrants are causing problems in America.
It was the first time the question was posed to a jury pool in Benton-Franklin Superior Court as a way to ensure an unbiased jury is chosen, the Tri-City Herald reported.
Judge Robert Swisher, who drafted the questionnaire, said the system works when potential jurors can be candid on such questions and acknowledge that they have a problem and won’t be fair. Doing so also helps shorten the jury selection process by quickly eliminating a number of people based on their answers and reduces the risk of a conviction being overturned later, the newspaper reported.
Prospective jurors in the murder trials of Gregorio Luna Luna and Jose Garcia-Morales were asked: “Do you believe that immigrants are causing problems in America?”
Their answers reveal a range of opinions on the hot-button immigration issue, with some jurors arguing that they couldn’t be partial, the Herald reported.
Last month, Luna Luna was sentenced to life in prison without parole in the stabbing death of his girlfriend, Griselda Ocampo Meza. Earlier this month, a jury convicted Garcia-Morales of murder in the shooting of a Pasco man.
“I think everybody tries to make sure everybody is unbiased or would tell us they’re unbiased, and the more questions we can ask of hot topics, the more chances we have of getting our client a fair trial,” said lawyer Shelley Ajax, who represented Luna Luna and Garcia-Morales.
Some of the 227 prospective jurors in those cases blame immigrants for taking jobs from Americans, bringing drugs, gangs and violent crime into the country, hiding behind a language barrier and overall “bleeding our system,” according to the Herald, which reviewed the questionnaires.
“If they are here illegally, they burden our services and cost us all, and then want full benefits of our country,” wrote a 47-year-old man. “They shouldn’t be here in the first place and don’t deserve the same rights as citizens!”
But others pointed out that America was founded by immigrants from all over the world and “has been made great by our rich and diverse heritage.”
“I feel that most are trying to better their lives and the lives of their families. There are going to be some that cause problems, but that goes for American citizens also,” said a 27-year-old woman.
As Swisher, the judge, prepared for Luna Luna’s February trial, he remembered an incident that happened during jury selection on an unrelated federal case and decided to put the question of immigration out there.
Swisher told the Herald that after reviewing the Supreme Court case, Rosales-Lopez v. United States, he believed it was his responsibility to address racial or ethnic prejudice to ensure the defendant received a fair and impartial trial.
“I think the court has an affirmative duty to make inquiries into that area, so I don’t think there’s any challenges to it,” the judge said.
On the jury questionnaires, people were asked if they could overlook the defendant’s status and treat him like any other person in this country’s judicial system:
“The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as the State of Washington law require that you give Mr. Garcia-Morales, who is a citizen of Mexico, a fair and impartial trial. Can you fairly and impartially try this case and base any decision you make on the evidence introduced during the trial and disregard the race and nationality of Mr. Garcia-Morales?”
By the numbers, 82 percent did not have a problem with that in Luna Luna’s case, and 81 percent said they could be objective if seated on the Garcia-Morales jury.
Yet, some took a hard-line stance on why they shouldn’t be selected.
“He doesn’t speak the English language, which tells me that he thinks he is above the law and doesn’t need to leave,” a 33-year-old man said in Luna Luna’s case.
One woman said she’s sick of illegals, while another didn’t trust herself to be fair if the defendant is not a citizen.
“If he has to testify at all and it all is done through a translator, I might hold it against him,” a 54-year-old man said on Garcia-Morales’ case.
Both defendants required Spanish-speaking court interpreters for all hearings.
Tri-City immigration lawyer Tom Roach gives Swisher credit for addressing the immigration issue.
“That question on the jury form forces people to focus on their own potential biases and say to themselves, ‘You know, I can’t be objective about this case,’ which is the way the system, the American system of jurisprudence, is designed to operate,” he said told the Herald.
“I think it’s a really important step in the right direction, especially in a community like this that we have where lots of people are either legal U.S. citizens or green card holders, or in some cases they’re illegal,” he told the Herald.