Reflections on Race & Jury Selection
Research has shown that diverse juries treat non-white defendants better than all-white juries:
However, it is an unfortunate reality of our current legal system that juries can be predominantly or disproportionately composed of white jurors. How does this happen?
It starts with the pool of prospective jurors. In order to serve as a juror, a person must be a U.S. citizen, over the age of 18, living in the court’s jurisdiction, and with the right to vote. Hennepin County itself is 72% white as of the last census. Thus, in Hennepin County, the majority of jury summons sent out go to white residents.
Compounding this reality, lots of systemic factors result in white residents of Hennepin County responding to jury summons more often than their nonwhite counterparts. Jury summons are mailed out, and those sent to many low-income or predominately BIPOC communities often come back to the court as undeliverable or do not come back at all. The costs associated with answering a jury summons are often too high for those who cannot afford to miss a day of work. When you’re poor, choosing to do jury duty can be the difference between being able to pay the rent, and not being able to. In addition, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many community members’ concerns about being in-person in a courtroom have factored into their decision to answer jury summons. Since communities of color have disproportionately borne the weight of the pandemic, this concern may disproportionately impact their willingness to participate in the jury process.
At the end of the day, folks who can afford to take the time to serve on juries do. Those who can’t, don’t. Here, in Minnesota—and especially in Hennepin County—that generally means that our juries pools are even whiter than you would expect. And this is all before the jury selection process begins!
When prospective jurors report for jury duty, they are questioned by the judge, prosecution, and the defense. The prosecution and defense teams are able to use different sorts of strikes to narrow the prospective pool down to the final numbers needed to seat a full jury (see our infographic and videos describing these). Though it is unconstitutional to use these strikes to remove a juror because of race, there are plenty of ways that race becomes a factor in juror questioning. Take into consideration the case of Potential Juror #76 (PJ #76) for the Chauvin Trial.
PJ #76 is a self-described quiet Black man who cheers for the Chicago Bulls. During questioning, he expressed how he had personally dealt with discrimination from the Minneapolis Police Department. When asked, PJ #76 stated that he could set aside his personal experiences and base his decisions off of the facts in this case, a response similar to what other jurors had stated. After his questioning, the Defense used a peremptory strike on PJ #76. Though this strike was not challenged on the basis of race by the Judge or prosecution, it raises an important question: how do you separate one’s race from their everyday living experiences? In the case of PJ #76, quantitative and qualitative data tell us that race was likely a predictive and contributing factor to his history of experiences with police. So for him to have been removed from the jury because of those same experiences is, in fact, not race-neutral, even if on face it seems to be.
At each step of the jury selection process, systemic factors work against BIPOC, excluding them for various reasons, and often resulting in mainly white juries. Though the jury in the Chauvin Trial is more diverse than many, race is certain to have a significant role in this trial.
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