Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson took the witness stand Thursday and fought off allegations that she has purposefully removed potential jurors from trials because they were black.
Her testimony came in a post-conviction relief hearing for William O. Dickerson Jr., who was sentenced to death in a James Island man’s 2006 torture and slaying.
It marked the first time that Wilson has taken the stand in such a proceeding, though officials said the move is not a rare one for prosecutors. Her testimony, which she said was voluntary, also came while Wilson is staged to prosecute two high-profile murder cases with racial undertones: former police officer Michael Slager in the shooting of Walter Scott and avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof in the slayings of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church.
During the proceeding Thursday in downtown Charleston, Dickerson’s attorneys sought to show how few white defendants she has tried in her career — about two — and to highlight racial disparities among prosecutors who have worked in her office. In an office of nearly 40 prosecutors in recent years, an average of two have been black, she testified.
But the thrust of Dickerson’s argument lies in a study of some of Wilson’s past trials. It alleged that she is seven times more likely to remove, or strike, black people from a jury pool than white people. The contention is a basis of Dickerson’s bid for a new trial.
Wilson has called the type of study flawed, and a lawyer from the state Attorney General’s Office who is fighting Dickerson’s case pointed out Thursday that the analysis did not consider any of the legal factors that a prosecutor can consider in asking for a juror to be removed.
“It seems to me ... that they looked at one factor, and that was race and then decided that I was a racist,” Wilson testified, “and I’ve got a huge problem with that.”
The hearing was expected to continue Friday and possibly for days to come. It could be weeks before Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper makes a decision.
Dickerson, now 39, was convicted in 2009 of murder, kidnapping and sexual assault of 29-year-old Gerard Roper.
At the trial’s start, 31 possible jurors remained after an initial round of elimination. Eight were black; 23 were white.
Attorneys can use “peremptory strikes” to remove people from the pool without giving a reason. But if an opposing lawyer thinks race is a motivating factor, the strike can be challenged in a “Batson” hearing — named after a U.S. Supreme Court case that established the process.
Some black jurors made it to the 12-member panel that heard Dickerson’s case. They voted unanimously to convict him, and he was sentenced to execution.
Michigan State University law professor Barbara O’Brien was hired to do the study — one of the defense team’s final efforts to save Dickerson’s life. Taxpayers funded it. In nine of the trials examined, O’Brien found that Wilson struck 38.5 percent of eligible black jurors and 5.7 percent of white ones.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Melody Brown has objected to the argument because it introduces information not directly related to Dickerson’s case. The judge, though, has allowed it.
When Brown questioned her Thursday, the professor said her study accounted only for the race of prospective jurors in the cases that the attorneys asked her to analyze. Other variables, such as criminal history and employment status, were left out. Wilson has said — and transcripts show — that she often cited those factors during jury selections.
But O’Brien insisted that the findings were still valid.
“It’s unlikely you would see a disparity like this if they were all race-neutral” reasons, the professor said.
Dickerson’s lead attorney, Charles Grose of Greenwood, argued that any shortcomings in the study’s methods are the result of not getting enough of the information he sought from Wilson’s office.
The study examined nine cases, while Wilson said she has prosecuted some 30 trials in the 9th Judicial Circuit.
“If there is more information, we’d like to be provided with it,” Grose said. “We want as much information included as possible.”
When Wilson took the stand, she called racially motivated jury selections “immoral.”
“I don’t think it’s right for the defendant,” she testified. “I don’t think it’s right for the juror who has a right to be a part of our system.”
But Grose focused his questions for Wilson on the race of the defendants and victims in her cases that went to trial. Wilson recalled only two of those defendants who were white. Most were black.
None of the white defendants were tried during her time as the elected solicitor. The upcoming cases against Slager and Roof, who are both white, are expected to make it to trial.
Wilson defended her record when the state’s attorney cross-examined her, saying that many of her cases end before trial. Dickerson’s attorneys scrutinized only a “small number” that reached a jury, she testified.
“I’ve handled hundreds of cases that have involved black people, white people, Hispanic people — you name it — and they’re just not included,” she said. “It’s just not right.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.