The staff of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has looked closely at jury selection procedures in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. We uncovered shocking evidence of racial discrimination in jury selection in every state. We identified counties where prosecutors have excluded nearly 80% of African Americans qualified for jury service. We discovered majority-black counties where capital defendants nonetheless were tried by all-white juries. We found evidence that some prosecutors employed by state and local governments actually have been trained to exclude people on the basis of race and instructed on how to conceal their racial bias. In many cases, people of color not only have been illegally excluded but also denigrated and insulted with pretextual reasons intended to conceal racial bias.
In Mississippi, Alvin Robinson, an African-American man, was on trial for murder after he’d allegedly had an altercation with and killed a white man following a frightful traffic incident. During the jury selection for his trial, an African-American woman showed up dutifully for service, but was turned away because she had “no ties to the community,” though she’d worked for the same local company for six years. One by one, the African-Americans who had been summoned were dismissed from service.
In a silent protest to being stricken from the jury for what she suspected to be a thinly-veiled attempt to maintain the racial homogeny of the all-white jury, this woman returned to the courthouse each day, only to watch Mr. Robinson be found guilty for murder (even though three of the jurors slept through portions of the trial) and sentenced to prison.
This sounds like a throwback to 1874, but in 2010, racial discrimination remains a barrier to the administration of fair justice in a number of jurisdictions around the country.
In addition to documenting the story above, a recent study by the Equal Justice Initiative found that in eight Southern states, African-Americans were systematically–and intentionally–excluded from jury participation, reinforcing the ugly stereotype that African-Americans are, by virtue of their racial classification, “unworthy” for full participation in civic life.
Although there are many disturbing trends uncovered by this study, arguably one of the most shocking is that in a number of jurisdictions around the country, from Pennsylvania to Texas, prosecutors were trained on how to discriminate against African-Americans and still appear to be race-neutral. In many of these jurisdictions, the most common excuse for the dismissal of African-Americans was “low intelligence” or “lack of education,” but black jurors were also struck from service because they were unemployed, believed that “police sometimes engage in racial profiling,” or because they had dyed hair.
These reasons are neither clever nor funny. They are illegal.
When prosecutors, who are trusted to support public safety by holding individuals accountable for their behaviors, violate the law by engaging in racial discrimination, they are not only becoming “criminals” themselves, they are also compromising the integrity of the justice system for everyone else.
Research has found that the racial composition of juries influences the credibility of trial outcomes, particularly in death penalty cases, where the lack of diversity on juries has produced significantly worse outcomes for African-American defendants. Given the low diversity among legal professionals–and the challenges people of color continue to face when trying to enter law schools across the country–fairness in the jury selection process is key to ensuring that all people have a voice in the interpretation and administration of justice.
The good news is that higher courts are, in some cases, reversing the negative outcomes that result from racially biased jury selection processes. In Mr. Robinson’s case, the Mississippi Court of the Appeals recognized the blatant discrimination and reversed the conviction because of “race-based strikes” in the jury selection that were seen as “contrived, strained, and an unquestionable pretext for purposeful discrimination.”
Jury selection is but one decision-point along the justice continuum that is threatened by racial biases; but knowing that this type of discrimination continues is the first step toward holding district attorney’s offices accountable for fair treatment.
Strict enforcement of our anti-discrimination laws, coupled with ongoing monitoring and the sanctioning of prosecutors who are found to engage in this illegal practice, are critical to ensure that the diversity of our nation is celebrated and reflected in our walk of life. If we truly value democracy, this is not something we should be willing to sacrifice.