Why racially mixed juries and the Racial Justice Act are important

March 16, 2013 

Last week, Republican lawmakers introduced a bill to repeal the N.C. Racial Justice Act.

The act allows defendants in death penalty cases to challenge their sentences if they can produce evidence that the prosecution unfairly excluded African-Americans or other minorities from serving on their juries.

Our lawmakers are taking this action in spite of a judge’s recent finding that across North Carolina African-Americans have been systematically excluded from serving on juries in death penalty cases. And it takes place at a time when a February survey shows that nearly 70 percent of North Carolina residents would support replacing the death penalty with a life sentence that does not allow the possibility of parole.

Racially diverse juries are not just a matter of “political correctness.” Juries that reflect our state’s multi-racial population are key to the integrity of our criminal justice system.

A jury is intended to combine the wisdom and life experiences of the community. When minority members of that community are systematically denied the right to serve, the jury loses key insights and perspectives.

We have seen the results of this narrowed perspective time and again in North Carolina. Thirty-three of North Carolina’s 152 death row inmates were sentenced by all-white juries, and an additional 40 were sentenced by juries with only one minority member. In a state that is now 35 percent nonwhite, almost half our death row inmates receive their sentences from juries with no meaningful minority representation.

In 2010, Shawn Massey was exonerated after 12 years in prison. During Massey’s trial, the victim described her attacker as having “cornrows,” a distinctive African-American hairstyle.

Members of the jury convicted Massey despite the testimony of witnesses who knew him that Massey had never worn cornrows and indeed had never worn his hair long enough to produce cornrows. Moreover, the prosecutor, who was unfamiliar with cornrows, had photographs in his files showing that, at random times over a seven-year period, Massey’s hair was always closely cut.

When African-American defendants are tried by overwhelmingly white juries, there is often no one in the jury room who understands the social and physical context of the crime or the background of the accused. And, as in the Massey case, there is no one to ask a key question based on having a shared culture with the defendant.

In another case, death row inmate Jathiyah aI-Bayyinah was convicted and sentenced to death by two separate all-white juries. At both trials, prosecutors presented evidence that al-Bayyinah fled when approached by police. No one on the jury had ever lived in a minority neighborhood where young black men are frequently harassed by police. A juror who lived in, or at least was familiar with, such a neighborhood could raise the likely possibility that even an innocent man would run from flashing blue lights; flight didn’t necessarily reflect guilt.

Equally important, systematic research has shown that the presence of minority members on the jury causes the white members to confront both explicit and implicit racial biases they may hold. Racially mixed juries also tend to have more thorough deliberations.

ln one study, researchers created an experiment comparing six-person juries, some of which were all white and some of which were composed of two black and four white members. The racially mixed juries deliberated longer, discussed a wider range of the evidence and were more accurate in their evaluation of the evidence.

Studies have also demonstrated that minority members are more likely to significantly affect the jury deliberations when there is more than one such member. The presence of a second person with a similar background makes both members feel comfortable enough to speak up; being the only minority member of the jury makes it less likely the person will actively participate in deliberations..

For all these reasons, we must insist on juries that truly represent our communities. The Racial Justice Act, by examining whether that has been the case in the past, is a tool that can help our state to finally face, and eliminate, racial bias in capital sentencing.

To simply abandon the law is to turn our backs on documented discrimination. That in turn undermines the integrity of our system of justice and the public’s confidence in the outcomes of trials. The system, after all, works only so long as our citizens, minority members as well as whites, are willing to respect and accept its decisions.

Neil Vidmar, Ph.D., is Russell M. Robinson professor of law and professor of psychology at Duke University.

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