Race and Jury Selection

In a 7-1 vote, the United States Supreme Court overturned the conviction and death sentence of a black Georgia man who was tried 30 years ago by an all-white jury in a case involving the murder of two white women.  The Court found that prosecutors purposely excluded black jurors.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion and said that the prosecution’s multiple “neutral” explanations—one juror was too young, another worked with the mentally ill and thus might be soft-hearted, another said she wasn’t familiar with the scene of the crime but had once lived a few blocks away, and one had a son who had been arrested for stealing hubcaps and thus might be sympathetic to a murderous burglar—were false. Justice Roberts offered this assessment:  “Nonsense . . . the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.”

A 2010 Equal Justice Initiative study found that, in counties across the country, prosecutors dismissed nearly 80 percent of African Americans qualified for jury service during the seating process.  A 2012 Duke University study of non-capital cases found that all-white juries convict black defendants 16 percent more often than white defendants. And what’s more, the same study found, when juries included just one black person, 71 percent of black defendants and 73 percent of white defendants were convicted.

You can read the ruling in this case, Foster v. Chatman, and a timely profile of Stephen Bright, the lawyer who brought the case, in Atlanta Magazine.

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