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Report Finds Racially-Biased Jury Selection in the South

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June 3, 2010

A new report (PDF) out yesterday by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) finds that in the South, African-Americans are routinely excluded from juries, especially in serious criminal trials and death penalty cases. The New York Times reports:

While jury makeup varies widely by jurisdiction, the organization, which studied eight Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee — found areas in all of them where significant problems persist. In Alabama, courts have found racially discriminatory jury selection in 25 death penalty cases since 1987, and there are counties where more than 75 percent of black jury pool members have been struck in death penalty cases.

The Times also reports that it’s near-impossible to combat racial discrimination in jury selection, because prosecutors can dismiss jurors under current constitutional law by giving “race-neutral” excuses, “no matter how implausible.” The new report found “[s]ome district attorney’s offices explicitly train prosecutors to exclude racial minorities from jury service and teach them how to mask racial bias to avoid a finding that anti-discrimination laws have been violated.”

Racially biased jury selection has a disproportionate impact on defendants facing the death penalty, especially defendants of color convicted of crimes against white victims. The Times reports:

Studies have shown that racially diverse juries deliberate longer, consider a wider variety of perspectives and make fewer factual errors than all-white juries, and that predominantly black juries are less likely to impose the death penalty.

The EJI report finds:

In death penalty cases, the absence of diversity appears to shape sentencing outcomes, marking them less reliable and credible. The effect is greater for non-white defendants, especially when the defendant is black and the victim is white.

This fact is echoed in a blog post by the ACLU’s Brian Stull last year. Brian wrote:

During the last two years, three men, including ACLU client Levon “Bo” Jones have been exonerated from North Carolina’s death row: All three were falsely convicted of killing white victims. Jones was convicted and sentenced to death by an all white jury.

Jones, who is African-American, spent 14 years on death row until he was exonerated in 2008.