Tuesday, January 17, 2006


In the federal criminal justice system, we used to have “Blue Ribbon Juries.” The law was changed by Congress forty years ago. Now we select the jury panel by a random method.

Under the Blue Ribbon system, the Judge would appoint “suggestors” in each county of the State. The suggestors were prominent in their communities, and were trusted by the Judge to do a good job of suggesting people who would make upright, honest jurors. From those suggested, a panel, say 24 or 36, would be chosen to try the criminal cases. The defense lawyers tried to find out the details of how the suggestors were chosen, and what methods the suggestors used to choose those whose names were sent forward. The lawyers were unsuccesful; they and their clients remained in the dark.

In October, 1966, forty years ago, Reis Lopez Tijerina and his followers took over the Echo Amphitheatre in northern New Mexico, and held forest rangers against their will. The rangers were taken before a “judge,” Jerry Noll, who claimed to be King of the Indies and the rightful owner (by grant from a Spanish king) of all land West of the Alleghenies. The upshot of it all was that Tijerina and several others were put on trial and convicted in federal Court.

At the time of the trial, in early 1967, the Blue Ribbon Jury system was in use in the United States District Court, but Congress had just passed a law abolishing the practice. The law was not applicable to the Echo Amphitheatre case, but Howard Bratton, United States District Court Judge, ruled that he would use the new system for the case. That was out of an abundance of caution, as they say. Judge Bratton was an outstanding jurist.

The case was tried in Las Cruces, and a jury was selected from the southwest part of the State. A conviction resulted, and Tijerina did federal time. Before he did time, he was on bond while he appealed his federal conviction. It took the court reporter nine months to prepare the appeal transcript. Meanwhile, in June, 1967, Tijerina was involved in the courthouse raid in Tierra Amarilla, in Rio Arriba County.

Tijerina was convicted of assault with intent to kill Eulogio Salazar, a deputy Sheriff, who was shot through the face while trying to escape the courthouse through an open window in the office of the Sheriff. Tijerina was sentenced to not less than two nor more than ten years by [State]District Judge Garnett Burks [Sr.] but Tijerina was pardoned by Governor Jerry Apodaca before Tijerina served any of his sentence. If he had served time, he would have been entitled to credit for a short time that he was in jail on the raid charges and before he was released on bail.

Now to the question. Why not return to the Blue Ribbon system? Why do we trust such important matters as life or death, or long prison sentences, to the type of juries we get today? As a practical matter, many well qualified persons are excused from jury service, or are excluded by peremptory challenges by lawyers who are looking not simply for a fair jury, but for a biased jury. We have allowed the system to be twisted to the extent that those accused of crime who can afford it are helped by professionals who study the biases of prospective jurors, and advise the lawyers how best to obfuscate and mislead the jury panel and the jury.

This is not to rail against our criminal justice system, but to encourage reform. We may be able to do better, and it is time for discussion of possible ways to do better. We owe it to the victims of crime, and to the persons accused and found guilty. The more likely the criminal is apprehended, promptly tried and punished if found guilty, the less his punishment needs to be.

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