Supreme Court rejects inmate’s jury selection complaint

Opt-out upheld but ruling won’t impact other cases

William Sitton will remain as an inmate at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, because Missouri’s Supreme Court this week rejected his request to be released from prison because of problems he said occurred with the selection of his jury.

Some people had been watching Sitton’s case, to see if the court’s ruling would affect other cases that had involved jurors from Lincoln County — including Ryan Ferguson’s 40-year sentence for the second-degree murder of the Columbia Daily Tribune’s sports editor, Kent Heitholt, in 2001.

But the court’s ruling dealt only with Sitton’s complaint, and not with issues raised in other cases.

Sitton, now 32, is serving a 25 years for convictions of involuntary manslaughter, armed criminal action and felony possession of a controlled substance.

At the time of his trial in 2005, Lincoln County allowed some potential jurors to “opt out” of jury service if they agreed to perform community service instead, and pay a $50 administrative fee.

Sitton’s attorney, Craig A. Johnston of the Public Defender’s office in Columbia, told the Supreme Court during oral arguments May 21 that he didn’t know about Lincoln County’s jury selection process until the state’s St. Louis-based Eastern District appeals court ruled in 2010, in a different case, that “the opt-out practice for qualified jurors in Lincoln County constituted a fundamental and systemic failure to comply with the statutory jury selection requirements.”

Based on that ruling, Johnston sued JCCC Warden Jeff Norman in 2011, asking that Sitton be released from prison. Circuit Judge Dan Green denied the request in March 2012, and the Western District appeals court in Kansas City denied the appeal of Green’s ruling in August 2012.

Sitton’s case was appealed to the Supreme Court last Dec. 12.

In a nine-page opinion written by former Chief Justice Richard Teitelman, six of the court’s seven judges agreed Sitton and his attorney didn’t prove that the jury selection process prevented him from getting a fair trial.

Sitton argued that five prospective jurors were cut, unconstitutionally, from the jury pool.

But, Teitelman wrote: “There is simply no way to assess the extent to which the improper excusal of the five jurors impacted the randomness of jury selection.

“Although the opt-out practice interferes with the random selection of otherwise qualified jurors, Sitton has not demonstrated that allowing five prospective jurors to opt out of service substantially interfered with the selection of jurors in his case.”

Judge George Draper III dissented from the court majority’s opinion — but didn’t write a separate opinion saying why.

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