Justice David Nahmias.
Justice David Nahmias. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

A man facing the death penalty has won a challenge to the way Fulton County picks juries. The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday that Fulton County is violating the high court’s Jury Composition Rule, agreeing with Otis Ricks Jr., who is accused of murdering a restaurant owner during an armed robbery.

“We conclude that the trial court erred in denying Ricks’s motion to declare Fulton County’s method of creating its jury lists to be in violation of the Jury Composition Rule and by not ensuring that the Rule is followed in Ricks’s case,” Justice David Nahmias wrote.

The high court reversed Fulton County Superior Court Judge Constance Russell on two pretrial orders and remanded the case to her for further proceedings to make sure the jury rule is followed.

Ricks is one of four co-defendants charged in the August 2012 murder of 53-year-old Vanessa Elaine Thrasher during an alleged armed robbery of the restaurant she owned, OT Lounge and Soul Food Grill in northwest Atlanta, according to the court’s summary of briefs filed in the case. She was shot seven times. Ricks, 23 at the time, was one of the first suspects arrested. In December 2012, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, Jr. filed a Notice of Intent to Seek the Death Penalty against Ricks. Ricks is represented by: Brad Gardner and Emily Gilbert of the Georgia Capital Defender office. “I’m glad the Georgia Supreme Court has seen this the way we have for the past five years,” Gardner said. “The Fulton County taxpayers should be upset.”

In 2012, the Georgia Supreme Court’s Jury Composition Rule established statewide requirements for the creation of county master jury lists, according to a court summary of the decision. Previously, Georgia’s 159 counties controlled their own jury lists. The Jury Composition Reform Act of 2011, the product of a seven-year effort led by former Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, was designed to replace the system with a consistent methodology for producing updated lists of eligible jurors.

Under the new rules, the Council of Superior Court Clerks provides Fulton County with a list of eligible jurors each year on July 1. The Jury Composition Rule requires a county master jury list to be at least 85 percent inclusive of the number of a county’s adult population. The goal is to ensure that jurors are chosen in a manner that does not deliberately or systematically exclude distinct groups from serving as jurors. Prosecutors claim that Fulton’s list is consistently above the 85 percent threshold.

Defense counsel challenged the use of the 2013 jury list, saying it was improperly altered by the county’s management vendor, Courthouse Technologies. The trial judge acknowledged that Ricks’ attorney “has pointed out anomalies in the data and a lack of transparency in the vendor’s coding scheme.” But she concluded, “There has not been a showing of either a constitutional violation or a violation of the Jury Composition Rule.”

Nahmias said the county’s first clear violation of the Jury Composition Rule is in allowing the vendor to add more than 1,000 names to the county master jury lists provided by the Council of Superior Court Clerks in both 2013 and 2014. In addition, the County improperly deleted “tens of thousands of names” from that list.

The rule says that “local clerks and jury commissioners shall not add or delete names from the county master jury list.”

Howard said in a news release Monday that the decision provides valuable guidance but does not hamper his prosecution. “My office is committed to working with the Superior Court and the Jury Clerk’s Office, to make sure the management issues raised by the Supreme Court will not curtail the trial process in our County,” Howard said. “We must all work together to make sure that the selection process for every Juror is characterized by fairness.”