Race Clouds Jury Selection in Liu Straw Donor Trial

The race of prospective jurors was the most contentious issue that arose during the process of selecting a jury to hear the federal case against two former associates of New York City comptroller John Liu for using straw donors to evade campaign contribution limits.

By Tuesday afternoon both sides had used up all their peremptory challenges — the right to exclude prospective jurors without cause. Noting that the potential jury pool had become devoid of Asians the defense challenged the prosecution’s use of peremptory challenges. Pointing out that six of the seven prosecution dings were used to exclude persons of minority races, the defense made a Batson challenge — arguing that the prosecution had made a concerted effort to exclude minorities in violation of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Batson v. Kentucky which bars the use of race as the sole basis for excluding prospective jurors.

The judge noted that the prosecution had dinged three African Americans, one Hispanic and one Asian and opined that a Batson challenge couldn’t be based on grouping together members of different races. However he asked the prosecution to offer a race-neutral explanation for its dings. The prosecution cited the fact that the Blacks dinged had friends or relatives being prosecuted in drug or fraud cases and that the Hispanic was dinged because he didn’t seem “serious”, seeming to be more interested in tattoos and skateboarding.

Noting that many African Americans hadn’t been struck, the judge ruled that the dings had been made on “race neutral” grounds.

The prosecution made a Batson challenge of its own, alleging that the defense had used 70% of its peremptories to ding Whites.

Noting that the defense had also dinged Hispanics and blacks, the judge found there was no “conscious pattern based on race.”

The final 12-member jury comprises seven women, with six members who are black or Hispanic but no Asians. A woman doctor was the only Asian in the jury pool who came up for potential selection. She was excused by the prosecution for cause on the ground that she knew a spectator who was related to one of the defendants and couldn’t say definitely that her deliberations would not be influenced by that relationship.

The two defendants are Jia Hou, a former Liu campaign treasurer, and Xing Wu Pan, a former fund-raiser, both of whom were born in China. The charges stem from activities during the 2009 campaign of then Queens city councilman John Liu for the New York City comptroller’s office.

Liu himself has not been charged with any wrongdoing after a three-year FBI investigation that involved extensive wiretaps of his phone conversations. He is currently running for the New York City mayor’s job.