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Labor Action, 7 February 1949

 

Wyatt Lee

CPs Lawyers Attack Jury Setup

Present Evidence That Blue-Ribbon Panels Come from Upper Class

 

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 6, 7 February 1949, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

 

The trial of eleven Communist Party leaders was still in its preliminary stages as the third week of hearings continued in Federal Court in New York. The battery of defense attorneys raised a host of legal objections to the proceedings and were charged by Judge Harold R. Medina with “willful, deliberate and concerted delay.”

Most of the defense objections, including his own right to preside, were summarily dismissed by Medina. The major controversy arose over the legality of jury system as practiced in New York and on this question the defense called numerous witnesses.

In New York, grand juries, whose task it is to conduct investigations, listen to evidence and to hand down indictments, are made up of jurors with supposedly “superior” qualifications. It was such a jury, known as “blue ribbon” juries, that handed down the indictment that brought present defendants to trial.
 

Charge Discrimination

The defense charges that such a jury is unrepresentative of the population and is chosen by discriminatory methods. Judge Medina is in an anomalous position, as he brought forth the same charges when acting as counsel for two trade union officials charged – and convicted – of racketeering. Medina carried an appeal to the Supreme Court, where the jury system was upheld by a 5-to-4 decision.

As is to be expected in America, qualification for a “blue ribbon” jury most likely means the attainment of a considerable degree of financial success, a “good” address, membership in the “right” clubs and societies, and other earmarks of solid, substantial American citizenship. Negroes, Jews, “foreigners” and other unreliable characters are not welcome, if not definitely excluded, as charged by the defense.

To prove their contention, the defense called a succession of witnesses from the grand jury panel – a procession that turned out to be made up in the main of stockbrokers, retired capitalists, prosperous businessmen and a scattering of well-to-do professional men. No questions on the racial, social or economic status of the witnesses were permitted by the judge. The prosecution merely asked each witness to confirm that similar questions had not been asked before their selection as grand jury members.

In addition, the defense began to call members of the petit jury panel, from which will be selected the jurors who will sit in judgment during the actual trial. Again discriminatory practices were charged, but Judge Medina called a halt to the evidence. Nothing had been produced, he said, that would stand up as proper evidence in the Supreme Court.
 

Basic Question Untouched

Next the defense called Prof. Doxey Wilkerson, head of the Jefferson School of Social Science, a CP-sponsored organization in New York. Wilkerson had prepared studies that showed jurors were called from areas in New York City where residents were likely to be in the higher income brackets. His figures showed that in the past ten years 40 to 50 per cent of the jurors came from an area known as the “silk stocking district,” while in the same period only one per cent came from Harlem or the lower East Side, predominantly working class neighborhoods. Occupational categories showed a similar disparity, with 46.1 per cent listed as executives and ranging downward to five per cent for manual workers.

After a day’s testimony, Judge Medina refused to accept more oral testimony from Wilkerson on these factors, though he did give permission for the defense to present the evidence in written form. Throughout the trial, though he leaned backward to give the impression of formal democracy, Judge Medina has cast doubt on the legal validity of the defense’s challenge of the jury system.

Aside from strictly legal interpretation, a matter for judges and lawyers, the defense seems to have succeeded in arousing grave doubts concerning the fairness of the jury system as practiced in New York. The press has been unable to avoid giving the picture of a parade of solid, prosperous citizens when the testifying jurors took the stand. The best the newspapers could do to discredit the line of defense was to report gleefully that three housewives among the jurors had “Jewish names,” and that one stockbroker had not been to college.

It appears highly improbable that defense efforts to quash the indictment of the eleven Communists on these grounds will succeed. Important as the question of jury selection is, the basic question of the legality of the Smith Act under which the defendants were indicted has not yet been touched upon.

Perhaps this is a ground on which the CP partisans do not feel strong. Were they not among the most vociferous in applauding the conviction of 18 Socialist Workers Party members under the same act?

 
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