A Brooklyn federal judge has ordered that only COVID-19 vaccinated New Yorkers may serve on an upcoming criminal trial jury, issuing a terse ruling that defense lawyers fear will impact the panel’s racial makeup.
“The Constitution accords defendants many a right: the right to infect 16 innocent jurors with COVID-19, however, is not among them,” wrote Judge William Kuntz in a Sept. 3 ruling against a defense team that requested potential jurors be allowed to serve with or without a shot.
The defense argued that including only inoculated jurors at an upcoming trial would make the pool whiter, given disparities in vaccination rates among racial groups.
“Minority groups continue to be disproportionally affected by COVID-19,” wrote lawyer Michael Hueston in a Sept. 2 letter to the judge. “Excluding non-inoculated jurors will lead to a further underrepresentation of minorities in our impaneled jury and deprive the defendants of their right to a jury drawn from a fair cross-section of the community.”
In New York, 54% of the adult white population was vaccinated as of Aug. 16 compared with 41% of Blacks, Hueston noted. In addition, 53% of the Hispanic population was vaccinated while more than 80% of the city’s Asian population has been inoculated.
Hueston represents Wilbert Bryant whose trial, along with co-defendant Ppassim Elder, is set to begin Sept. 13 with jury selection.
Bryant has been accused by prosecutors of taking part in the killing of business owner Hani Kasem, 64, in Ozone Park on Oct. 23, 2017. Bryant allegedly went to Kasem’s grocery distribution business with two other men to collect a $50,000 debt owed to Elder, a loan shark know as “Big Sam.” As they tried to get the money, one fatally shot Kasem in the face.
Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, though agreeing with Kuntz, argued that banning un-vaxxed New Yorkers from the jury pool actually protects them.
“The Court’s decision to excuse all non-vaccinated jurors is appropriate because forcing them to sit would increase their risk of contracting COVID-19 and thereby constitute an ‘undue hardship’ on them,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Edelman.
The decision by Kuntz marks a turn from most other cases in the district. In the sex trafficking trial of R&B superstar R. Kelly just across the building, Judge Ann Donnelly decided not to question jurors about their vaccination status.
And in the trial of Brendan Hunt, who was convicted of threatening to kill members of Congress, Judge Pamela Chen also allowed jurors irrespective of their vaccination status.
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