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No penalty for former Brazoria County clerk who sorted potential jurors by race and residence

a jury box in a courtroom with red cushioned chairs and a brown railing in between two rows of several seats
Patrick Feller/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
A jury box in a Texas courtroom.

Jury selection is supposed to be random in Texas, but Rhonda Barchak used a system of her own invention for years.

From Texas Standard:

Former Brazoria County Clerk Rhonda Barchak used an improper juror-selection process that sorted candidates by race and residence, according to an investigation by the Texas Rangers.

Instead of selecting jurors randomly, Barchak sorted potential jurors into four categories: white Pearland residents, non-white Pearland residents, and white and non-white Brazoria County residents who lived outside Pearland. However, a grand jury decided in December not to charge Barchak with a crime. Anna Bauman, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, told Texas Standard that’s because there’s no state law that prescribes a sentence.

Listen to an interview with Bauman in the audio player above to learn more about why the revelation about Barchak's practices hasn't led to what some expected to be a review of numerous cases decided by juries during her tenure. Also learn about what community activists say still needs to be done to ensure fairness in the county's justice system.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: What did the grand jury decide in this case of the former Brazoria County clerk?

Anna Bauman: So, short answer is the grand jury declined charges against Ms. Barchak or anyone else who was involved in this matter.

On the face of it, this sounds like racial discrimination, and certainly a very unorthodox way of selecting jury pools, which are supposed to be colorblind, no?

Right. So, essentially, there's a number of laws and statutes that govern jury selection in the state, and all of them agree that the process has to be random. So it's pretty clear from the investigation that Ms. Barchak was not following these statutes. This process that she created, sorting people by race into different piles, was not random. But she wasn't charged with the crime, and the reason for that, my understanding is, that these statutes don't actually prescribe a penalty for somebody who doesn't follow them.

But we're talking here about the dispensation of justice, that even if there were no penalties stated in Texas code there could be a violation of constitutional law here.

Right. There was definitely speculation at the outset of these allegations that because Barchak had been district clerk for more than a decade, that there would be all sorts of cases being overturned or tossed out from over the years. And so far, we have only seen the one defendant and his attorneys requesting a new trial on the basis of this situation, and not as somebody who was convicted of murder by a mostly white jury. And so his attorneys have filed a number of motions.

So the the wave of cases that we were possibly thinking might need to be looked at again, that really hasn't come to fruition. And prosecutors down there in the district attorney's office are no longer reviewing old cases after this investigation. They say that they did an audit of of cases – I believe it was 12 cases from 2020 and 2021 that they looked at – and essentially found that there was no statistical difference in the racial composition of those juries compared with the county's population.

Has Barchak offered any explanation about why she sorted juries this way?

Yeah, she has. And you know, what she she told investigators in this report is that she was actually trying to create more diverse juries. That's sort of the explanation that was given was that her process was meant to evenly distribute people by race and by geography. But regardless of her intentions, what she did was not random and therefore was not in compliance with those statutes.

What do community activists in Brazoria County and other parts of Texas have to say about what happened?

There's still a lot of distrust surrounding the investigation and what's been going on down there in Brazoria County. So, at least one community activist who I spoke to last week after reading through this report, Quanell X said, he told me he doesn't quite trust be the outcome of this investigation just because the investigators were prosecutors from the Brazoria County DA's office, as well as the Texas Rangers – that they were too close to that person and the office that they were investigating, because of their involvement with the judicial system of Brazoria County. So there's a level of distrust that this investigation should be handed off to the FBI or the U.S. Department of Justice.

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