Judge denies jury pool motion in Northwood murder case

Published 6:36 pm Monday, May 11, 2015

By Peggy Senzarino, Mason City Globe Gazette

FORT DODGE, Iowa — A judge has denied a request to throw out a panel of 225 potential jurors set to hear a Northwood murder case involving an African American defendant.

An attorney for Tyrone Washington Jr., 41, of Northwood, filed a motion asking the court to strike the entire jury panel because there may be no African Americans along the list of potential jurors.

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Washington is accused of stabbing his former girlfriend, 30-year-old Justina Smith of Northwood, to death in Swensrud Park in Northwood on Aug. 5, 2013. He allegedly fled the scene in Smith’s Pontiac Grand Prix. Authorities captured him hours later in Scott County following a chase through corn and bean fields along Interstate 80.

The trial was moved out of Worth County on a change of venue due to defense concerns about the lack of minorities in Worth County.

District Judge Colleen Weiland ruled late Monday that the underrepresentation of African Americans on the jury pool is not a result of systematic exclusion.

“The defendant has a theory of how the current Iowa impaneling procedures lead to underrepresentation of minority racial groups, but the evidence does not establish the cause. The source lists used to establish the jury panel master lists are widely accepted by courts around the country, and those lists are updated more often than is required by the Iowa Code,” Weiland wrote in her ruling.

His trial was to begin Monday with jury selection. But that was postponed for one day as defense attorney Charles Kenville presented evidence alleging his client is being discriminated against because of the possible lack of African Americans along the potential jurors being called to court Tuesday.

Approximately 4.1 percent of the population of Webster County is African American, according to census records. But none of the potential jurors identified themselves as African American on the juror questionnaires, Kenville said. The question asking the respondent’s race is optional as is the question about gender. About 9 percent of the respondents called for the Washington case refused to answer the race question.

“I think the court can totally see the issue we’ve got here,” Kenville said.

Currently records from Iowa Department of Motor Vehicles and voter registration records are used to select potential jurors.

Kenville suggested Webster County request that other records such as utility bills, unemployment checks, disability payments and property tax data be used in picking citizens for jury service.

No county has ever requested to expand the selection criteria for jury service, according to Ken Bosier, director of information systems and technology for the Iowa Judicial Branch. The database is housed at the Judicial branch in Des Moines. The software is maintained by Xerox.

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan vigorously disagreed with Kenville’s assertions that Webster County officials were negligent in their duties.

“His rights have not been prejudiced,” Roan said.

Jury selection will begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

If convicted, Washington faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“His life is at stake here,” Kenville said pointing at his client seated next to him. “This is a Class A felony with his life in the balance.”