The Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantees that someone charged with a crime has the right to a trial by an impartial jury. Bias and impartiality cannot be accounted for in all circumstances, but we should at least prevent the cherry-picking of juries by overzealous prosecutors eager to secure a conviction.
Unfortunately, racial bias in jury selection is still a problem, especially when it comes to cases involving minority defendants. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in favor of a death-row inmate pursuing the right to seek a new trial. His 1987 conviction and subsequent death sentence were delivered by an all-white jury, and prosecutors’ notes show that black potential jurors were purposely kept off the jury simply because they were black (and would presumably be more sympathetic to the black defendant).
For some history, the 1987 case was related to the murder of an elderly white woman in Georgia. The case was prosecuted just months after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling specifically prohibited removal of potential jurors based on race.
In jury trials, both prosecutors and defense attorneys play a role in selecting jurors. The goal is to identify unfair biases and conflicts of interest in potential jurors and ensure that only impartial jurors are selected. Each side can generally “veto” a certain number of jurors without giving reason, but cannot do so because of a juror’s race.
Four black potential jurors were taken out of consideration by prosecutors, leading to an all-white jury. Some 20 years after the case was prosecuted, the defendant and advocates were able to obtain notes taken by the prosecutors. The notes showed that on potential juror lists, all black jurors were labeled in ways indicating their race. Most were immediately put onto “definite no” lists by prosecutors.
The U.S. Supreme Court voted nearly unanimously that prosecutors had engaged in a “concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.”
Commenting on the importance of this case, the defendant’s lead lawyer said: “This discrimination became apparent only because we obtained the prosecution’s notes which revealed their intent to discriminate. Usually that does not happen. The practice of discriminating in striking juries continues in courtrooms across the country. Usually courts ignore patterns of race discrimination and accept false reasons for the strikes.”
Unfortunately, the defendant must still seek a new trial in Georgia state court. But his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is a reminder to the nation that racism is still rampant within all aspects of the criminal justice system and needs to be addressed.