Jury Trials and Race

Jury trial was an early development of the English common law. Under the Magna Carta, which was implemented in 1215, no freeman could be detained and incarcerated unless he had been judged by his peers. As such, to decide, on reasonable grounds, who was deemed as suitable to be tried, a group of freemen from the area where the crime was committed would be brought together to examine the facts of the case and establish whether the charges had any merits. Hence, the grand jury was created as a check against arbitrary prosecution by a judge who might be co-opted by the power elite. The notion of the grand jury was transported by the early settlers of the American colonies. Later on, with the ratification of Bill of Rights in 1791, the first ten amendments to the American Constitution, the Fifth and Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantee the right to a jury trial for all defendants accused of serious crimes. However, it is important to examine jury trials and race.

During 1863–1877, the period of Reconstruction in the South, the abolitionists viewed juries as the guardian of the rights and liberties of Americans. Yet, in many instances, in trials where all of the juries were white, the juries would refuse to impeach or convict white defendants accused of crimes against blacks. One main reason why blacks were not a part of the jury system was because of peremptory challenges, which were used to exclude African Americans from hearing cases in which the defendants were also African Americans. Swain v. Alabama is a case in point. In 1965, Swain, a black man, was convicted in Talladega County, Alabama, of raping a white woman. He was sentenced to death. The case was petitioned to the Supreme Court on the basis that there were no blacks on the jury. The Supreme Court denied the appeal. In fact, the Court based its decision, as provided by Alabama’s law, that the jury was selected from a panel of 100 persons including eight blacks. The Supreme Court ruled that the presence of eight blacks showed ‘‘the overall percentage disparity has been small and reflects no studied attempt to include or exclude a specified number of blacks.’’

The exclusion of blacks from jury trials made it impossible to achieve justice in the courts, especially southern courts. Nevertheless, the courts did not see it as necessary or desirable to abandon the jury trials. Eventually, there were some attempts by the government to eliminate the many barriers that prevented blacks’ participation in the legal system and the rights of blacks to serve as jurors. However, the justice system continued to overlook peremptory challenges and for many years; there were two competing views among the Supreme Court Justices on whether a juror’s race might sway his or her view of a case. It was not until 1986, in the landmark case of Batson v. Kentucky, that the Court claimed that the equal protection clause prohibits a prosecutor in criminal cases from using his peremptory strikes against a potential juror on the basis of race. Since this decision by the court, many defendants have raised the issue of race discrimination in the use of peremptory challenges. The Court extended Batson v. Kentucky to a variety of related cases.

In the 1991 case of Powers v. Ohio, the Court held that it was unconstitutional to exclude juries on the basis of race even when the defendant and the juror were of different races. Also, it asserted that a white defendant could challenge the discriminatory striking of black jurors. As is expected, these cases continued to provoke the prevailing disagreement among the Justices on whether a juror’s race might influence his or her view of a case. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy flatly rejected such a notion that a jury’s race matters in the determination of the outcome of a case. This was emphasized in Powers v. Ohio, in which he claimed that any acceptance that a jury’s race matters would be to recognize ‘‘the very stereotype that the law condemns.’’

In the same year, in the case of Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co, the Court held that a private party in a civil action might raise peremptory challenges on the basis of race by defendants’ attorneys in criminal cases. As such, in Edmonson v. Leesville, Justice Kennedy concluded that our ‘‘progress as a multiracial democracy’’ authorizes that public prosecutor ‘‘satisfy themselves of a jury’s impartiality without using skin color as a test.’’ Although Kennedy’s position, during this period, coincided with the majority of the Justices’ views, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor took the opposite view. She contended that race should never be relevant in jury trials, but we cannot delude ourselves ‘‘of the painful social reality that, sometimes, it may be.’’ In the 1992 Georgia v. McCallum decision, the Court prohibited the exercise of peremptory challenges on the basis of race by defense attorneys in criminal cases.

In the end, concerns about jury trails and race remain a huge element of America’s justice system. Many minorities are angered because of white juries’ verdicts in the acquittal of white defendants of crimes against racial minorities. The Rodney King’s trial is a case in point. SHERROW O. PINDER References and Further Reading Foner, Eric. Reconstruction America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863–1877. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988.

Haden, George, Joseph Senna, and Larry Siegel., Prosecutorial Discretion in Peremptory Challenges: An Empirical Investigation of Information Use in the Massachusetts Jury Selection, New England Law Review 13 (1978):768.

Siegel, Larry, and Joseph Senna. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, a Division of Thomas Learning, 2004. v. Kentucky, that the Court claimed that the equal protection clause prohibits a prosecutor in criminal cases from using his peremptory strikes against a potential juror on the basis of race. Since this decision by the court, many defendants have raised the issue of race discrimination in the use of peremptory challenges. The Court extended Batson v. Kentucky to a variety of related cases. In the 1991 case of Powers v. Ohio, the Court held that it was unconstitutional to exclude juries on the basis of race even when the defendant and the juror were of different races. Also, it asserted that a white defendant could challenge the discriminatory striking of black jurors. As is expected, these cases continued to provoke the prevailing disagreement among the Justices on whether a juror’s race might influence his or her view of a case. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy flatly rejected such a notion that a jury’s race matters in the determination of the outcome of a case. This was emphasized in Powers v. Ohio, in which he claimed that any acceptance that a jury’s race matters would be to recognize ‘‘the very stereotype that the law condemns.’’

In the same year, in the case of Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co, the Court held that a private party in a civil action might raise peremptory challenges on the basis of race by defendants’ attorneys in criminal cases. As such, in Edmonson v. Leesville, Justice Kennedy concluded that our ‘‘progress as a multiracial democracy’’ authorizes that public prosecutor ‘‘satisfy themselves of a jury’s impartiality without using skin color as a test.’’ Although Kennedy’s position, during this period, coincided with the majority of the Justices’ views, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor took the opposite view. She contended that race should never be relevant in jury trials, but we cannot delude ourselves ‘‘of the painful social reality that, sometimes, it may be.’’ In the 1992 Georgia v. McCallum decision, the Court prohibited the exercise of peremptory challenges on the basis of race by defense attorneys in criminal cases. In the end, concerns about jury trails and race remain a huge element of America’s justice system. Many minorities are angered because of white juries’ verdicts in the acquittal of white defendants of crimes against racial minorities. The Rodney King’s trial is a case in point.

SHERROW O. PINDER

References and Further Reading

  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863–1877. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988.
  • Haden, George, Joseph Senna, and Larry Siegel., Prosecutorial Discretion in Peremptory Challenges: An Empirical
  • Investigation of Information Use in the Massachusetts Jury Selection, New England Law Review 13 (1978):768.
  • Siegel, Larry, and Joseph Senna. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, a Division of Thomas Learning, 2004.

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