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United States v. Watts

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

February 15, 2017



          J. Phil Gilbert United States District Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on defendant James Nathaniel Watts's motion to secure the petit jury from the entire Southern District of Illinois rather than just the twenty-seven counties comprising the Benton Division (Doc. 467). The Government has responded to the motion (Doc. 475).

         I. Background

         Watts has been charged in a two-count Indictment (Doc. 15). Count 1 charges him with the May 15, 2014, attempted armed bank robbery of the First National Bank in Cairo, Illinois, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a), (d) and (e). The indictment further alleges that in attempting to rob the bank Watts used dangerous weapons to assault or put in jeopardy the life of another person and, in fact, killed Anita Grace and Nita Smith. Count 2 charges Watts with possessing a firearm as a felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Because the indictment alleges that death resulted from the attempted bank robbery, the possible penalty should Watts be convicted of Count 1 is death or life imprisonment. See 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e). The Government seeks the death penalty under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591-98, and accordingly, pursuant to § 3593(a), has filed a Notice of Intent to Seek the Death Penalty (Doc. 92).

         Watts's case is set to be tried in June 2017 at the courthouse in Benton, Illinois. The petit jury selection process began with the Benton Master Jury Wheel that was filled in April 2015 according to the Court's Plan for the Random Selection of Jurors (Revised November 2011) (“2011 Jury Plan”). Under that plan, individuals comprising the Benton Master Jury Wheel were randomly selected from general election voter registration lists and lists of licensed drivers eighteen years or older (“source lists”) covering twenty-seven counties in the Southern District of Illinois (the “Benton Division”; the remaining eleven counties comprise the “East St. Louis Division”). 2011 Jury Plan at 2-4. In April 2015, 9, 685 individuals were randomly selected from those source lists to fill the 2015 Benton Master Jury Wheel.[1] See Report on Operation of the Jury Selection Plan (“AO-12”) for Benton Master Jury Wheel Filled 4/27/2015, pt. I (Doc. 362-2).

         The petit jury selection process in Watts's case will continue according to the Plan for the Random Selection of Jurors (Revised September 2015) (“2015 Jury Plan”). Under that plan, juror qualification questionnaires have been or will be sent to randomly selected individuals drawn from the 2015 Benton Master Jury Wheel. 2015 Jury Plan at 4-5. Based on an individual's responses in the questionnaire, he or she will either be deemed unqualified for service, exempt from service, excused from service upon request, or qualified. 2015 Jury Plan at 5-6. Those deemed qualified will be placed in the Benton Qualified Jury Wheel for this case and may be sent a case-specific juror questionnaire and/or summoned to Court for voir dire and final jury selection. 2015 Jury Plan at 7.

         II. Parties' Positions

         Watts asks the Court to qualify and eventually summon jurors from the entire Southern District of Illinois, in proportion to the respective populations of the Benton and East St. Louis Divisions, rather than exclusively from the Benton Division as called for by the 2015 Jury Plan. He argues that although a petit jury is typically summoned from the division in which a defendant will be tried, nothing prevents the Court from drawing potential petit jurors from the district as a whole. Watts concedes that although drawing the petit jury exclusively from the division in which he will be tried is not unconstitutional, expansion of the geographic area would “greatly increase the chances of seating a fair and impartial jury, ” Mot. 1, and would avoid the appearance of partiality and exclusion, Mot. 4.

         In support of his request, he cites cases in which the Court expanded the geographic area from which the jury was selected because of extensive pretrial publicity or knowledge of the defendant in the area from which the jury would ordinarily be selected. See United States v. Blom, 242 F.3d 799, 804 (8th Cir. 2001) (selecting jury from entire state except division where the crime was committed to avoid prejudice from publicity); United States v. Erickson, 75 F.3d 470, 476 (9th Cir. 1996) (drawing last-minute supplemental jurors from twenty-five mile radius of trial location for expediency). He asks the Court to exercise its discretion to widen the geographic area from which potential jurors are selected in light of the “substantial pretrial publicity” about this case.

         Watts also points to the “deeply rooted and unique racial and social demographics, political histories, and beliefs regarding crime” in the divisions of this district. Mot. 4. Specifically, he points out that African-Americans make up 5.3% of the Benton Division population and 13% of the East St. Louis Division population. He further asserts (without explanation or citation to evidence) that the absolute disparity between African-Americans in the district's population and those qualified for jury service in the Benton Division is 7.52%, and the comparative disparity is 76.7%. He notes that at least one court has encouraged supplementation of voter lists to reduce the discrepancy between minorities in the population and minorities qualified as jurors. United States v. Levasseur, 704 F.Supp. 1158, 1165 (D. Mass. 1989) (refusing to supplement Master Jury Wheel for case but endorsing expanding source lists going forward).

         In response, the Government argues that the Court has already found Watts has not made a prima facie showing of systematic exclusion of African-Americans from the petit jury venire based on the Court's jury plans' drawing potential petit jurors exclusively from the 2015 Benton Master Jury Wheel. It further argues the motion is untimely in light of the July 1, 2016, deadline for challenges to the manner of jury selection and is not a timely supplement to the motion challenging the grand jury for underrepresentation of African-Americans (Doc. 153). The Government further argues that the motion has no merit, noting that the Supreme Court in Ruthenberg v. United States, 245 U.S. 480, 482 (1918), has found it constitutional to draw jurors exclusively from a division within a district rather than the entire district.

         III. Analysis

         As a preliminary matter, the Court would be justified in denying this motion because it was not timely filed. In the Second Amended Scheduling Order (Doc. 365), the Court set a deadline of July 1, 2016, for the parties to file motions challenging jury selection procedures. Watts's pending motion was filed December 16, 2016, more than five months late. It is true the Court allowed Watts until December 16, 2016, to supplement his prior motion to dismiss the Indictment on the grounds that African-Americans were underrepresented in the pool of qualified jurors from which the grand jury was selected (Doc. 153). However, the pending motion cannot be reasonably construed as a supplement to that motion, which challenged the grand jury, not the petit jury, and which argued, contrary to the pending motion, that it would have been error to select the grand jury from the entire district rather than the Benton Division. Watts's pending motion is clearly late.

         Even if Watts had filed the current motion in a timely manner, the Court would deny it. The Court has already acknowledged in prior orders a criminal defendant's rights respecting the jury that will hear his case. In its November 21, 2016, order (Doc. 454) denying Watts's request that the jury be ...

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