Call for a black quota on juries

Andrew Fraser and Ian Gerard
17th July 2006

A QUOTA of indigenous people should be selected for jury duty in all criminal trials involving Aboriginal defendants, Townsville lawyers and activists said yesterday.

Solicitor Stewart Levitt, who is the lawyer for the alleged ringleader of the Palm Island riots, said it was unlikely any Aboriginal person could get a fair trial in Townsville because public attitudes towards Aborigines were prejudiced and hostile.

He called for the city's juries to have a minimum quota of Aboriginal people sitting on them to ensure indigenous defendants were given a fair go.

"In every trial, the defence and the prosecution have the right to make objections to juries and it is very rarely that there is an Aboriginal person on a jury," he said.

"There should be some type of cosmopolitan mix which is reflective of population; about 20 per cent should be black."

On Friday, Mr Levitt, acting for alleged riot ringleader Patrick Lex Wotton, successfully argued for Mr Wotton's trial to be moved from Townsville to Brisbane because jury members would be unable to ignore prejudice towards Palm Island Aboriginal residents, even if directed to by a judge.

The judge was presented with media reports about the matter as well as a survey of 400 Townsville residents, which found only 13.3 per cent of them had a positive attitude towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and only 4.9 per cent had a positive attitude towards the people of Palm Island.

More than half of those surveyed said they could not disregard negative beliefs about Aborigines, even if instructed to do so by a judge in a courtroom.

Longtime Townsville Aboriginal activist Gracelyn Smallwood backed the call for jury quotas, arguing that affirmative-action programs for juries were in place overseas.

"Lex is very fortunate to have the trial moved because there's no way he would have got a fair trial in Townsville," she said.

"Time and time again, when there's black and white crime, it's black people who get almost double the sentencing.

"I'm not saying you should have an all-black jury, but where Aboriginal people are on trial you should have some Aboriginal people on the jury to inform them of the broader cultural issues."

But the proposal was rejected by Queensland Attorney-General Linda Lavarch, and her federal counterpart, Philip Ruddock. A spokesman for Mr Ruddock said selecting people for jury service on the basis of their skin colour was "inappropriate", while Ms Lavarch's spokesman said interfering with the principle of random selection of juries would create major problems.

Brisbane Bar Association spokesman Tony Glynn said the quota proposal was nonsense.

"It's not really on to try to get a jury which matches the person on trial," he said. "Every time you had a Vietnamese person on trial, would you need a certain percentage of the jury from a Vietnamese background?

"If there was a young person on trial, would they be able to argue that the jury were all over 50 and so they didn't get a fair trial?

"The current system of having a jury chosen at random works because it's random, and changes to that would make jury selection difficult, if not impossible."

US courts have experimented with racial quotas. The Hennepin jury model -- which requires a jury to reflect the proportion of majority and minority people in the general population -- was used in Minnesota, but rejected in 1999. Southeast Michigan dumped a similar model in 1998.

Lawyers in other jurisdictions are barred from striking out jurors on the grounds of race. In 2001, the Blair Government rejected the recommendations of its own report on jury quotas, which had called for at least three jurors from a minority on all race-based cases.

In 1995, Cornell University conducted a series of mock trials using all-white, all-black and mixed juries. It found white jurors were more likely to convict a black defendant on the same evidence and facts as a white defendant, and black jurors did the same for white defendants. Race bias tended to be negated when juries were of mixed race, it found.

Federal MP Peter Lindsay, whose electorate covers Townsville, denied yesterday it would be impossible for an indigenous person to get a fair trial in Townsville. "Where do we go to next -- will there be a quota for gays, a quota for people of criminal background?" he said.

Additional reporting: Tracy Ong