Company managing Oklahoma’s jury selection system found to have violated ‘jury composition rule’ in another state

Donate
The Tulsa County Courthouse. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Oklahoma has paid more than $1 million to a Canadian company that was recently found by the Georgia Supreme Court to be improperly altering juror master lists provided to a county there prior to trial periods.

The company, Courthouse Technologies, announced in July 2013 that it had taken over Oklahoma’s jury management system. Prior to that, each of the state’s 77 counties had handled jury management individually.

“Oklahoma took a further step forward in improving their (sic) jury operation by selecting Courthouse Technologies to implement our jury platform,” a release stated at the time.

The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Payments to the company began in September 2013 and have continued since, according to a state database. In total, $1,110,215.73 has been paid to Courthouse Technologies since payments started.

In May, the Georgia Supreme Court handed down a 43-page ruling in a murder case against Otis Ricks. Ricks’ attorney filed a motion alleging master jury lists supplied by Courthouse Technologies were not representative of the county where the trial was set to be held.

Ricks, who faces the death penalty, is one of four men accused in a 2013 Fulton County, Ga., homicide.

Ricks’ attorney alleged – and the Georgia Supreme Court agreed – that Courthouse Technologies had used “legacy data” to improperly remove some names from the master juror list and improperly add others.

“Legacy data” refers to prior changes to the list — name removals or additions — that are legally supposed to be temporary, but became permanent.

For instance, someone who Courthouse Technologies removed from the list because of a pending felony charge could have later been found innocent, and therefore should have been placed back on the master juror list.

Another example included the deletion of a person with the same name as someone else in the same county. For example, there could be two people named “Mary Smith,”  and the company would flag the name as being a duplicate and remove one name from the list, even though they were two separate people.

More than 1,000 names had been improperly added to the list using that same “legacy data.”

In total, the Supreme Court ruling noted that nearly 131,000 names (16 percent of the total master juror list) had been removed by Courthouse Technologies. Not every removal was improper, the court said, but many were.

The issue raised by Ricks’ attorney and the Georgia Supreme Court is that jury pools are required by law to be representative of the population they’re pulled from, and any pool significantly smaller than it should be has less of a chance to be representative.

***

What does this have to do with Oklahoma? One local defense attorney is alleging Courthouse Technologies has created a system that has a similar effect here, though it takes a different path to get there.

Richard O’Carroll, a well-known defense attorney with a reputation for an “everything including the kitchen sink” style of defending his clients, has argued that Courthouse Technologies’ practices have created an unconstitutional trial environment in Oklahoma.

O’Carroll represents Shannon Kepler, a former Tulsa police officer accused of murdering his daughter’s boyfriend. After two previous trials resulted in hung juries,  the Kepler case is tentatively set to go to trial again this week.

O’Carroll filed a motion earlier this month in Tulsa County District Court — later denied by District Judge Sharon Holmes — over what Courthouse Technologies refers to as “the Courthouse Refund Program.”

The program, O’Carroll argues, “incentivizes a smaller pool of jurors.” Every year, the company supplies Oklahoma counties with “master juror lists” which the counties use to send jury summonses. Before that list is provided to the counties, however, the counties must approximate how many summonses they intend to send out.

If a county mails out fewer than it approximated, Courthouse Technologies refunds the difference.

“They’re doing piece work to keep the pool smaller, and obviously if you keep the pool smaller, it will be less representative,” O’Carroll said. The bigger the sample, the more accurately it reflects the population. And we’re paying someone to make the pool smaller.”

Jari Askins, administrative director of the Oklahoma Administrative Office of Clerks, told The Frontier in an email that CHT’s agreement with Oklahoma doesn’t necessarily work that way.

She said the state pays a “statewide bulk rate” for 100,000 pieces of mail per year for jury summonses. If the state needs more before the year is up, it pays extra. If the state goes under the amount paid for, it receives credit for the following year.

The annual cost for 100,000 mailers is $63,000, Askins said. She said her office didn’t have data on how many mailers had been sent in previous years, or whether it was more or less than the 100,000 figure.

But still, O’Carroll continues to wage his fight . The Tulsa World reported Monday that the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled O’Carroll’s battle against the jury-selection process can continue.

***

It’s unclear if CHT’s trouble in Georgia will have any impact in Oklahoma. It’s possible that O’Carroll’s motions will prove fruitless and the company will continue to maintain juror master lists in the state without issue.

Rachel Farrar, who serves as co-counsel with O’Carroll in the Kepler case, called CHT “a small company” and said she wants to know if the company’s mistakes in Fulton County, Georgia’s most populous county, could be happening elsewhere.

She questions whether the issues in Fulton County were a fluke, or a symptom of a larger problem.

“What happened there was you had Georgia tell CHT, ‘Hey, here is a problem, you need to fix it,’” Farrar said of the legacy data the courts ruled CHT improperly utilized. “And CHT didn’t do it, they kept doing what they were doing … if that was happening there, could it be happening here?”

Askins told The Frontier she was unaware of the issues between CHT and Fulton County. The Georgia Supreme Court ruling noted that the issues in Fulton County were at least in part due to Fulton County itself, which may have been improperly instructing CHT on which names to remove.

It hasn’t been all bad news for CHT. The company was touted in a recent article from a Corpus Christi, Texas, newspaper as having saved Nueces County taxpayers thousands of dollars due to the use of an online jury questionnaire.

A blog written on the CHT website said that in the past Nueces County “hadn’t made efficient use” of CHT’s product. According to the post, CHT officials met with court staff there, ironed out some issues, and things greatly improved.

“All it took was a re-evaluation of how they were using the tools already at their disposal,” the blog states. “Instead of one big change, they made a number of small changes that resulted in improvements and juror access. We look forward to their continued success as they maintain their enthusiasm for using the tools in front of them as effectively as possible.”

Your financial support for our investigative journalism is now tax deductible. Click here to become a Friend of The Frontier.

Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan has two kids, three dogs, and no time to himself. He's fueled by QuikTrip and Twitter. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
Donate