Alvin Clay and his all-white jury

Google “all white jury” and Mychal Bell of the Jena 6 will be at the top of the list.  According to Jena 6 attorney David Utter, not a single African American has been seated in the Jena courtroom since 1994 (that’s not a typo).

I didn’t say much about the racial composition of Alvin Clay’s jury during the trial; they deserved a chance to show their shine.  If any of the jurors in Clay’s case wish to respond to my harsh assessment I will be happy to discuss the issues in private, or to publish your views without comment. 

Alvin Clay’s jury filed out of the court room at the lunch hour.  The first order of business had to be polishing off the boxed lunches provided by the court.  Then they had to pick a foreman.  To get a verdict decided in an hour, the foreman only had time to take an initial poll of the jury.  There couldn’t have been the slightest hint of disagreement. 

In short, a one-hour verdict is really a ten-minute verdict.  

This case boiled down to a swearing match between Alvin Clay and Donny McCuien.  Judge Leon Holmes admitted as much when he denied a defense motion for acquittal.  Only one witness suggested that Alvin Clay was in on the conspiracy: Donny McCuien.  To convict Clay on all counts, you had to believe McCuien.

Judge Holmes ruled (correctly) that he was not allowed to assess the credibility of witnesses; that was a job for the jury.

McCuien testified in exchange for lenient treatment.  He quickly learned that the federal government had no interest in Donny and Ray; they wanted Alvin.

Donny and Ray would have pulled off their scheme without detection if the government hadn’t been trying to nail a black Little Rock attorney who had embarrassed them once too often.  Even if the feds had stumbled upon their real estate scam, they would have tossed it to state officials.  It’s a simple slam dunk document case that would never have gone to trial.

McCuien originally told the government he had no association with the Nealy scam until late in the game.  In reality, McCuien was instrumental in linking both buyers and sellers with Nealy.  The buyers were contacted at Burger King and most of the sellers lived in McCuien’s neighborhood. 

When FBI agent Rodney Hays learned he had been scammed by McCuien he made no attempt to alert the grand jury to the fact that they had been scammed.  Hays knew what the US attorney’s office was looking for and he gave it to them, even if he had to suborn perjury to do it.  So long as Hays delivered the goods, all sins would be forgiven.

McCuien was all too cooperative.  He told Hays that Nealy and Clay had cashed in big-time by selling a home to a woman named April Flowers.  Unfortunatgely for McCuien, when the feds raided Nealy’s office they found no reference to the phantom transaction.  You can’t work with a lending agency and a title company without creating a paper trail.  Donny McCuien was scamming the federal government and they knew it. 

So long as McCuien was feeding the feds what they wanted, they proved to be remarkably forgiving.  He could lie to them as long as he was also willing to lie for them.

McCuien and Nealy assured Alvin Clay that rehab work was being completed and he believed them.  This was also the testimony of the sellers, lenders and title agents involved in this case.  Jurors were asked to evaluate the truthfulness of this testimony.  If they believed Clay they had to acquit.  If they thought he was lying, they had to convict. 

Jurors were assured that, although Donny McCuien had a history of lying to the federal government, he was now telling the truth.  

Steven Snyder made this assertion forcefully and earnestly.  There wasn’t a shadow of equivocation in his voice or in his manner.  He was a preacher on fire with the very truth of God.

In reality, Steven Snyder is just a guy who chose to believe a witness he knew was lying to him because that’s what it took to convict the defendant du jour.  Unlike men like Bob Govar and George Vena, Steven Snyder didn’t have a personal dog in this fight.  He couldn’t drop the charges against Clay without making his colleagues in the Eastern District look suspect, so he packaged a notorious liar as the voice of truth.

Snyder didn’t enjoy the task that had been dumped into his lap.  Throughout the trial he looked like a man on the verge of a nervous collapse.  But when he got in front of the jury he was a man on a mission.  Everything was simple; the case was unassailable; Clay was guilty.  Period!

That’s what prosecutors are paid to do.  Defense attorneys are paid to do the reverse. 

But how could the jury be so thoroughly convinced by Donny McCuien that they reached a verdict in less time than it took to bolt down a box lunch?

In theory, the government had to prove that Alvin Clay was guilty, and they had to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.  And they had to do all of that with nothing to work with but the word of a notorious liar who lied to the jury just as he had lied to buyers, sellers, Alvin Clay and the federal government.  In theory, selling McCuien as a credible witness should have been a tall order, but it wasn’t.

I doubt jurors spent a lot of time assessing Donny McCuien’s credibility.  McCuien was believed because he was singing in harmony with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Attorney’s Office.  A liar was believed because he was standing on the side of the Eagle.  

The Alvin Clay trial was a marketing scam.  Most middle class white jurors are like the guy who would rather push a Ford than buy a Chevy.  They believed McCuien because he was sponsored by the Eagle.  They pulled for the scruffy hustler in the ill-fitting suit for the same reason they will pull for TEAM USA at the Olympics.  It’s their brand, their team, their product of choice.

They would have believed Alvin Clay if he was allied with the Eagle brand.

Black jurors, as a group, are a much harder sell than white jurors.  Black Americans were only half as likely to back the invasion of Iraq.  They wanted more assurance than the simple fact that the Eagle was in a warlike mood. 

Black Americans are half as likely as their white counterparts to express confidence in the criminal justice system.

Jurors want to believe they have sacrificed two weeks of their lives to some noble purpose.  Putting a bad guy behind bars makes them feel good.  Acquitting a man who may or may not be guilty leaves them feeling uneasy and dissatisfied.  Give them clear evidence of innocence and they will acquit; otherwise, they will convict.  Every time.

Judge Holmes once said that pregnancies resulting from rape are as rare as snowflakes in Miami.  So are acquittals in federal trials.  (In fairness to Holmes, he has since admitted that the “snowflakes in Miami” remark was over-the-top and inaccurate).  

A fascinating study conducted by Tufts Unversity shows that white jurors are far more willing to consider the racial dynamics of a trial, are more attentive to detail, and are more concerned with due process issues when they are working shoulder-to-shoulder with minority jurors.  (More on this groundbreaking study can be found here.)

The Alvin Clay trial shows what happens when white jurors hold the fate of a black man in their hands.   Few white jurors aren’t consciously aware of their own prejudices.  But the Tufts study found that white jurors think and behave differently when they work with black jurors.  The effect is so strong, in fact, that simply knowing they are going to be working in a diverse setting impacts the pre-deliberation attitudes of white jurors.

Black jurors would have asked why it had taken the federal government five years to bring this black attorney to trial, and why the feds were in bed with a proven liar.  

White jurors easily convince themselves that a case has nothing to do with race, even if the judge, the prosecutors, the FBI agents, and all twelve jurors are white.

Black jurors would have written off Donny McCuien as just another Uncle Tom snitch selling his soul to the man. 

That’s precisely who Donny McCuien is; that’s why he was weeping in the witness room.

Steven Snyder didn’t lose any sleep last night.  He convinced himself that Alvin Clay was guilty long ago.  With that issue settled, the federal functionary was willing to climb under the covers with McCuien.

But Steven Snyder doesn’t have a clue what transpired between Clay, Nealy and McCuien.  Only two men who graced Leon Holmes’ courtroom know the truth–Alvin Clay and Donny McCuien.  On the stand, Clay was respectful, calm, reasonable, and revealing.  The government didn’t catch him in a single contradiction.

McCuien’s testimony was bizarre, desperate and demonstrably false.  He had memorized a few catch lines, but was utterly flummoxed when defense questions wandered off the subjects on which he had been carefully prepped by the FBI.  Every claim he made was impeached by credible witnesses.

For instance, McCuien claims that, following the FBI raid, Clay told him to lie to the authorities.  Jeron Marshall was testifying for the government under full immunity, but she testified that McCuien told her that Clay told him to “tell the truth”. 

A jury with three of more African Americans would never convict a man like Alvin Clay on the basis of such shoddy “evidence”.  White jurors wouldn’t have done it either if anyone had been in the room to pose the hard questions. 

I have been asked if it is possible to appeal a conviction on the basis of jury composition.  Not unless it can be demonstrated that the selection process was flawed in some way.  I will leave it up to the lawyers to address that issue. 

The deeper question is how seriously we take the right of every American citizen to be tried by a jury of peers?  If Alvin Clay possessed that right, it would have taken his jury longer than ten minutes to send him down the river.

4 thoughts on “Alvin Clay and his all-white jury

  1. Mr. Bean,

    It seems to me your mind was made up before you yourself even sat foot in the courtroom and listened to any of the evidence. How can you expect jurors to “do the right thing” when you had already made up your mind about the case before it started?

    Do you really expect anyone to believe that the now convicted felon Clay did not know what was happening and was not complicit in the conspiracy? Did you expect the government to find a handwritten note between the three conspirators outlining what each of their roles were? They didn’t because that’s not what criminals do.

    Readers are welcome to google “Alvin Clay Arkansas” and learn all about his disciplinary issues with the state’s office of professional conduct regarding attorneys.

    There are plenty of persons across this country that have really been harmed and accused of things they did not do. When you compare Alvin Clay to Rosa Parks, I think you have lost all touch with reality.

    I look forward to your future columns on the existence of the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, space traveling Martians, the Easter Bunny and other fantasies of your mind.

    Your new friend/felon will not win on appeal and he will eventually be sent to a federal prison. When he returns, he will have to find a new line of work because he will be disbarred and unable to take advantage of anyone else (as an attorney at least).

    The reason there are so few comments to your illogical diatribes is because your friend/felon is not believable. No one accused Mr.Clay of killing anyone, he was simply greedy. He decided to take short cuts in life and they eventually caught up with him. He will now pay the price.

    I also recommend that you go to law school in an attempt to learn what the law is and what criminal trial procedures mean. It might open your eyes and enlighten you. Regardless of your opinions, you showed a severe lack of knowledge of what actually occurs during a trial. Sitting in a courtroom and taking notes does not a lawyer make.

    Evidently, the case was not just about Clay. Three persons were charged for these activities. One has pled guilty, one was found guilty and the third will soon suffer the same fate.

    Have a nice day.

  2. John Doe:

    I am not a lawyer; by profession I am a Baptist minister. I know enough about how the federal justice system works to understand the high potential for wrongful conviction. You are right about Mr. Clay’s fate, but that is neither here nor there. I entered the courtroom after spending two months reading up on the case. I tell the story from Mr. Clay’s perspective, no doubt. The government presents a very small, constricted story; I present the big picture. The bottom line is that Clay was convicted on the word of a man utterly lacking in credibility. If the government has to use a man like Donny McCuien to get a conviction they should simply drop the charges. Although no one will file the charges, suborning perjury is a crime. That sound naïve, I know. But I am not a lawyer. I am trying to change the way the federal system works. Your refusal to identify yourself is highly significant.

    Thanks for checking in.

  3. David Utter is incorrect about blacks and all-white juries in the Jena courtroom. An African American gentleman served on a aggravated rape/ capital case (and voted to convict) in LaSalle Parish only a few years ago.

    In another case in the past several years, a female African A merican juror was accepted by State and defense counsel and seated before it was discovered that the juror had a pending felony charge. The juror was subsequently removed.

    In a separate criminal jury trial, again in the past few years, an African American juror was accepted by State counsel but rejected from that jury on a peremptory challenge by defense counsel.

    I am unsure why David Utter would (if he did) make such a statement without doing any research to back up his claim or why you would print it without confirming it. The statement is factually incorrect, and knowing better would have been pretty easy to find out (though the latter two tidbits are admittedly more obscure).

    There are many, many blacks in LaSalle Parish that would, just as whites, convict upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The scarcity of blacks on LaSalle Parish juries is a function of mathematics, not racism (as implied here and previously)

    I guess it made a better story your way.

  4. In the Know — The term used in this blog is correct — “seated” on a jury does not mean called and dismissed, it means to participate in the trial. Further, “a few years ago” would be better clarified with an actual date, and possibly the case name, since you were allegedly able to find the information.

Comments are closed.