Does Race Matter in Jury Selection? Yes, Yes, Yes!

May 13, 2012, 7:52 PM by  Allan Lengel

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Does race matter when it comes to jury selection?

Yes, yes, yes.

I can say so, at least from my first-hand experience as a juror.

But before I go there, let me explain why I bring this up.

Last week, during jury selection in the high-profile federal corruption trial in Detroit of Bobby Ferguson, a pal of ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the defense filed a motion asking that the judge do the jury selection all over again because there weren’t enough African-Americans on the panel. The judge has yet to rule on the matter and jury selection continued on Monday. 

At the same time, a prospective juror told the Detroit News that she thought she was bounced from the jury pool because she was black and her appearance (she had tattoos).

It reminded of me when I served on a jury in D.C. Superior Court in 1999.

I was a reporter at the Washington Post at the time, covering crime. The jury was composed of six blacks and six whites, all residents of D.C.

A 25-year-old man was charged with attempted murder. He was on a parole for drug charges at the time. He was charged with shooting a 20-year-old man in the back. The defendant and victim were both African American. So was the judge and the two prosecutors, the defense attorney, the witnesses and one of the two detectives.

The victim survived. He testified in court.

I figured it was an open-and-shut case. A slam dunk.

The victim had been working at the car wash all day. He’d been smoking pot and drinking throughout the day.

When he came home, he learned that the defendant had grabbed his 14-year-old sister’s butt in front of everyone. When one of her friends got in the defendant’s face, he pulled out a gun. The crowd scattered.

Later at night, the brother went up to the defendant and told him to leave his sister alone. The defendant asked to discuss the matter in the alley. They went in the alley and talked. Everything seemed ok. 

Then, as the brother walked away, he was shot in the back. He lost a kidney, but he survived and was able to testify.

When we began deliberations, I figured it was a done deal. Guilty, guilty, guilty, of attempted murder, I thought.

I was wrong.

Everyone agreed the man had a gun. He waved it in front of the crowd. We agreed to convict on the gun-related misdemeanors.

But when it came to vote on the attempted murder charge, the vote was 6-6. Yes, six whites voted to convict and six blacks voted to acquit.

I was stunned. I was also naive.

It soon came out that the black jurors were far less trusting of the authorities. Where were bullet shells, some asked. How do we know a gunman wasn’t hiding in the bushes nearby (a la the JFK assassination). The victim wasn’t believable, some said. He was high on marijuana when he was shot, so his recollection was impaired.

I had to pause. I also had to ask, was I being far too trusting of the “man?” I thought the victim was very credible. It was clear he wasn’t anxious to testify, to be a snitch in his own neighborhood. 

The black jurors came from many backgrounds. One was Assistant U.S. Attorney General in the civil division, whose parents were both cops. Another one was a mid-level President Clinton appointee. One was an elderly church lady; another was a nurse. 

We went back and forth. I insisted that we stick to the evidence that was presented during trial. There was nothing to suggest another gunman was hiding in the bushes, I said.

But the distrust and skepticism of the black jurors persisted. 

We started sending notes to the judge telling him we were hopelessly deadlocked. He kept telling us to continue deliberating.

Finally, after days, the black Assistant Attorney General said something to the effect, “we need to compromise.” She said she feared there would be a hung jury and the defendant would be retried and convicted of a tougher charge.

So, reluctantly, we all agreed to convict on a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon, which carried a far lesser penalty than attempted murder. 

After the case, I asked one of the black jurors about her experience, and she said she thought some of the white jurors were prejudiced. She said she didn’t think I was prejudiced, but I seemed to go along with the prevailing white mindset.

Several months after the conviction, I attended the sentencing. I was writing a piece on my experience for the Washington Post Outlook Section. The paper had decided to hold off on publishing it until after sentencing so we wouldn’t impact the process.

As the defendant stood up for sentencing, the judge said he had no idea what the jury was thinking. He thought the evidence was overwhelming. He wanted to give him a tougher sentence, but couldn’t. He gave him 5 1/3 to 12 1/3 years in prison.

I’m not saying we can predict that all black jurors will vote one way and whites another. That would be totally unfair, inaccurate and absurd.

But to say that race doesn’t matter in jury selection:

Well, that would be absurd as well.

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