For at least two decades, the U.S. Justice Department has been prosecuting crimes formerly the purview of local district attorneys, from drug sales to gang hits to inner-city murders. The rationale, says Boston Globe columnist Peter Canellos, was that some scourges of the inner city — drug dealing, gun sales, and gangs — are problems that cross state borders and that require a federal response. In Boston, as in some other large cities, one reason some criminal defendants fear being prosecuted in the federal system is that black defendants are likely to face a jury with fewer blacks. That’s because federal courts have larger jurisdictions than do urban court systems.
Federal Judge Nancy Gertner in Boston found that a far higher percentage of jury summonses to black neighborhoods are returned as undeliverable or unanswered as compared with white suburban areas. Preparing to oversee jury selection for two black murder defendants, she declared that any undeliverable or unanswered summonses must be replaced by summonses to the same zip codes. U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan objected to Gertner’s decision. An appeals court suspended Gertner’s order while an appeal is pending; Chief District Judge William G. Young appointed a committee of five judges to review the racial makeup of the jury pool for federal trials. The dispute could turn on whether the appeals court believes that the racial makeup of a jury plays a significant role in its decisions, Canellos says. Many lawyers assume that black defendants get a better shake from juries that include blacks. Likewise, many people believe that white juries are generally friendlier to white defendants.