A local, infamous murder trial is working its way through motions and such, including a story today about the defendant unhappy not that the trial will be in Athens but with the jury pool being drawn from out of town (Elbert County) instead of one of the Atlanta counties (Fulton or DeKalb). The defendant, an admitted cop killer, is worried some in Elbert County consume Athens-Clarke media and therefore will be less likely to render a fair verdict. Given the limited reach and readership of Athens media to Elbert County, there's really no basis for this argument. More interesting, though, is whether Elbert County is a fair surrogate for Clarke County.
Here's a key part from the story:
Hood [the defendant] requested that jurors be chosen from Fulton or DeKalb counties, but Haggard [the judge] ruled that the demographic make-up of those counties are so different from Athens-Clarke County that Hood “would likely” be denied his constitutional right to be tried by jurors “selected from a fair cross section of the community.”
The judge ruled that jurors would be selected from Elbert County.
Is Elbert County similar to Clarke? Let's do the numbers, based of course on Census data. Athens-Clarke is more populous than Elbert, but what matters is the demographics. Below are categories with each county, percentages in parentheses.
- Percent White: Clarke (66.0) Elbert (68.1)
- Percent Black: Clarke (27.3) Elbert (29.7)
- Percent Hispanic: Clarke (10.7) Elbert (5.3)
- Percent Asian: Clarke (4.3) Elbert (0.9)
At first glance, at least in terms of race and ethnicity, the two counties look awfully close to one another. Yes, Athens-Clarke is more diverse, no doubt a function of UGA being located there, as well as students appearing in some of the Census data. Let's look at a few more numbers:
- Median Household Income: Clarke ($33,846) Elbert ($35,053)
- Percent Below Poverty Level: Clarke (34.9) Elbert (20.0)
- Percent Bachelor's Degree or Higher: Clarke (40.8) Elbert (11.2)
So, is Hood right? Is, say, Fulton County a better fit?
Fulton is 44.4 percent black, for example. Compare that to above. In terms of race, Elbert is clearly a better fit. However, Fulton County has 48.4 percent with a bachelor's degree or better, far closer to Athens-Clarke. The median income of Fulton is much higher than both Clarke and Elbert ($57,664), again the Clarke numbers largely a function of college kids in the Census pool skewing the numbers down, at least in terms of income. Similarly, Fulton is only 16.8 percent below the poverty level, further away from Athens-Clarke than is Elbert County.
All in all, here's my summary. A change of venue is necessary in a trial like this after so much local publicity. If you want a conviction to stick, you have to support a change in venue. One way to do that is to move a trial, the other is to bring in an outside jury. The only real question is whether, when it comes to appeal, an Elbert County jury is the right fit. I might have considered Hall County (more diverse, larger pool, etc.), but perhaps the judge found it too close to Athens to comfortably fit. That's a reasonable argument. All in all, the Elbert County demographics, at least as measured by the Census, seem to work. What really matters, though, is the jury pool. How well does it reflect the demographic breakdowns above? Yes, I can see this being the basis of an appeal once Hood is (one hopes) convicted.