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New Grand Jury Hailed as O.C.'s Most Diverse


SANTA ANA — Capping an unprecedented recruitment effort, Superior Court officials Wednesday named a new Orange County Grand Jury and hailed the citizen panel as the most diverse ever in age, gender and ethnicity.

The new grand jury, which will be sworn in July 1, is comprised of eight women and 11 men. Two are Asian American, two are African American and three are Latino. The rest are white. Their ages range from 33 to 74.

Critics, who have accused the previous grand juries of ethnic and racial insensitivity, said the changes were a start.

"It certainly is giving the big message to the community that the grand jury recognizes the diversity of Orange County, and is willing to put a high value on the contributions of our diverse communities to the overall system," said Zeke Hernandez, past state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

LULAC filed a complaint with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission after the county's 1992-93 grand jury released a report calling for a three-year moratorium on immigration nationwide and linking illegal immigration to a host of social ills. The commission is expected to review the complaint in hearings later this year.

James Colquitt, president of the Orange County chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, praised the current grand jury's efforts to recruit replacements in Orange County's minority communities.

"They sent brochures and application procedures to the churches and neighborhood organizations," he said. "They made a tremendous outreach, comparatively speaking, and it was all due to the existing grand jury. I'm not going to give anybody else any credit."

But Colquitt tempered his praise, noting that that while the incoming grand jury may be more ethnically diverse than those of previous years, the panel still favors the wealthy. Grand jurors receive only $25 a day.

"That's prohibitive. That's to keep poor people off the grand jury and to keep minorities and young people off the grand jury," Colquitt said. "My contention is if we can pay an attorney $125 an hour out of public funds to defend someone who has already committed a murder, then we can pay a grand juror more than $25 a day."

The 19-member Orange County Grand Jury is an independent panel of citizens that can bring indictments against people accused of crimes. Members also act as government watchdogs, scrutinizing the actions of local government agencies.

The county's grand jury system has come under repeated attack during the past year. In addition to complaints by minority groups and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission probe, criminal attorneys argued that their Asian clients were unfairly indicted by a panel that was predominantly white and elderly. No one of Asian descent was included on at least the past five grand juries.

The complaints also sparked an unprecedented reform effort, which showed the first signs of change Wednesday.

"I think the selection process provided more diversity this year than it ever has," said Alan Slater, Orange County Superior Court executive officer. "We have a very good panel, a very diverse panel, in ethnic makeup, age and from all over the county."

The jury impaneled last July included 16 whites, one Latino, one African American and one Native American. Their average age was 64, and the youngest juror was 44. During the course of the year, two alternate Latino jurors replaced one white and the Native American juror, bringing the number of Latinos to three.

While 159 people applied for last year's jury, 217 applied for the new grand jury selected Wednesday, an increase attributed to the outreach efforts, said Gai Spickard, judicial support analyst with the Superior Court.

Of the 217 candidates this year, 13 were of Asian descent, eight were black, 22 were Latino and one was a Native American, she said.

To recruit a more diverse group, the grand jury sent out 15,000 flyers to libraries, churches, civic groups, chambers of commerce, and the city halls of all 31 Orange County cities, said Bahia Wilson, chairwoman of the current grand jury's special issues committee.

"We plastered Orange County with posters and flyers," she said. "This was a very proactive effort to get the word out and increase the level of public awareness."

Wilson praised Superior Court Judge Michael Brenner, who oversees the grand jury, for making many of the committee's outreach efforts possible.

Comcast Cablevision produced an announcement at no charge and provided the grand jury with 15 video copies to distribute to other local cable companies, Wilson said.

The special issues committee, formed last year specifically to broaden representation on the citizen panel, met with more than a dozen African American, Asian American and Latino civic leaders since last summer to encourage new applicants.

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