Hanging Jury

A study by Samuel Sommers and Phoebe Ellsworth (2001) concluded, white jury’s’ demonstrated racial bias against defendants even when race was not the preeminent focus. The research found that “when race is a key issue, societal expectations are elicited and jurors heed popular egalitarian ideals. Yet when the “race card” is not played, whites are more susceptible to making prejudiced decisions.” In other words, non-diverse white jury’s convict African American, Hispanic, and other ethnic minority defendants at a greater rate than white defendants for similar crimes. Contrarily, some studies have indicated that a defendant’s race has no consistent affect on white jurors (e.g. Mc Guire & Berman, 1977; Skolnick & Shaw, 1997), and a handful of studies have found that white jurors are actually harsher towards same-race defendants than out-group defendants are (e.g. Mc Gowen & King, 1982: Poulson, 1990).

In actuality, the supremacy of studies substantiates the legal system is biased against minorities (Jones 2000) and the poor. A 94-page study found that “minorities in the United States face discriminatory treatment at every stage of the judicial process, from arrest to incarceration” (Jones 2000). The first words Officer Darren Wilson ever spoke to Mike Brown before he killed him were “Get the fuck up on the sidewalk” (Halperin 2015). The myriad of You Tube videos aside, I doubt those type of exchanges are commonplace but the path to the jury begins with the first encounter with a police officer and there is a different approach used for different people. The sex, age, income, and degree of neighborhood disadvantage of suspects were also useful predictors of police reaction toward suspects (Mastrofski 2002).
The jury selection process and eventual verdict is simply part of the justice system or “just-us” system as some refer to it. African Americans are systematically excluded from jury’s to increase the probability of guilty verdicts for the prosecution. When jury’s are rigged, white jurists are typically non-empathetic toward minorities and racially prejudiced against minority defendants. This practice is not uncommon in the U.S. and is most common in the southern states. During a two year study by the Equal Justice Institute, it found Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee were the most egregious offenders of unfairness in the prosecutorial phase. In the south, some district attorney’s offices explicitly trained prosecutors to exclude racial minorities from jury service and taught them how to mask racial bias to avoid a finding that anti-discrimination laws had been violated (EJI 2005). Moreover, prosecutors in Dallas, Texas, maintained a decades-long policy of systematically excluding African Americans from jury service and codified it in a training manual. Similar efforts to avoid detection while excluding people because of race have continued in many jurisdictions, resulting in the ongoing underrepresentation of people of color on juries. Another example is that prosecutors in Houston and Alabama routinely removed 80 percent of the qualified African Americans for jury service (Stevenson 2010).

One method to rectify the situation is to require or mandate (because nothing will be done if voluntary) a better representative of community members on juries. A jury should reflect the makeup of the citizens of that community. Recently Judge Olu Stevenson of Louisville Kentucky, dismissed an entire jury because the lack of black jurors. In this case, the defendant was black, the trial was in an overwhelmingly black district but the prosecutor had removed all eligible black jurors leaving only whites on the jury. The judges concern was that the panel was not representative of the community therefore; the defendant could not get a fair trial. Of course, the backlash was immediate. The common wealth prosecutor, Tom Wine, requested the higher court remove judge Stevenson from all criminal cases. The Tom Wise request was denied.
Apart from the Judge Stevenson stand for more inclusive juries, the Equal Justice Institute proposed several changes to the judiciary. For instant, “prosecutors who repeatedly exclude people of color should be subject to fines, penalties, suspension, and other consequences to deter the practice. Community groups can hold their district attorneys accountable through court monitoring, requesting regular reporting on the use of peremptory strikes, and their voting power” (EJI 2005) to name just two.
The results from racially diverse jury’s are more thorough and competent than homogeneous groups (Sommers 2006). According to a 2006 study, “ethnically diverse jury’s’ made fewer inaccurate statements about the case than their peers in the all-white groups” (Sommers 2006). The diverse group took longer to decide a case and did not dismiss race as a component to their deliberations. Without much cogitation, all white juries have consistently lowered the threshold to reach a conviction on all defendants but especially minority defendants. To benefit all the citizens of the US it is imperative changes be made to lessen the overall burden on society.


Halpern Jack, “The Cop: Darren Wilson was not indicted for shooting Michael Brown. Many people question whether justice was done” www.newyorker.com. (August 2015) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/10/the-cop
Jones Shannon. “Study finds widespread racial bias in US criminal justice system” www. wsws.org (May 2000) http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/05/bias-m16.html
McGowen, R., & King, G. D. (1982). Effects of authoritarian, anti-authoritarian, and egalitarian legal attitudes on mock juror and jury decisions. Psychological Reports, 51, 1067-1074.
McGuire, M. V., & Bermant, G. (1977). Individual and group decisions in response to a mock trial: A methodological note. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 7, 220-226
(n.a.) “Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy” www.eji.org http://www.eji.org/raceandpoverty/juryselection” (Accessed Feb 28 2016)
NPR Staff. “Study: Blacks Routinely Excluded From Juries” www.npr.org (June 2010) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127969511 (accessed 2-28-16)
O’Conner. E. Study results show white jurors still demonstrate racial bias. (2001) American Psychological Association, Vol 32, No. 3. (Accessed Feb 28 2016)
Stephen D. Mastrofski; Michael D. Reisig ; John D. McCluskey. Police Disrespect Toward the Public: An Encounter-Based Analysis. Criminology Volume: 40 Issue: 3 Pages: 519 to 552 (August 2002)
Stevenson Bryan. Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy American Bar Association Vol. 37 No. 4 (Accessed Feb 28 2016)
Sommers, S. R. PhD., Kim “On Racial Diversity and Group Decision-Making: Identifying Multiple Effects of Racial Composition on Jury Deliberations,” Samuel R. Sommers, Tufts University; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 90, No.4. (April 1, 2006


  1. Erica Michele Skinner

    I have often found myself struggling with reports of the racial biases that seem to have multiplied exponentially over the past couple years. With the advent of personal recording devices, perceived injustices on the part of law enforcement (or anyone for that matter) can be instantly uploaded for the masses, and viewed over and over on social media. The trouble I see with these video clips is that they are often started after a situation has escalated. Many times I’m left wondering what happened in the first place to create this out-of-control legal mess. Over the years, several of my psychology courses have addressed this issue, and an overwhelming consensus is that the standardized use of body cams for law enforcement officers may help to prevent the escalation of these heated exchanges. Unfortunately, it seems that we are seeing an influx of “glorified thugs” in police departments across the country. Perhaps being held accountable for their actions, from beginning to end, will aid in reducing unnecessary violence toward citizens, whether guilty or not.

    In the unfortunate event that a citizen has been charged, and faces a trial by jury, it seems that a fair and impartial decision by a “jury of one’s peers” may be a farfetched dream. I have always been skeptical of this idea, and it seems that your research has confirmed my suspicions. If we are truly to be judged by a jury of our peers, the justice system should ensure that the jury is made up of individuals sharing our race, culture and socioeconomic background. This game that prosecutors play with jury selection in order to guarantee a guilty verdict, is not only morally reprehensible, but should be illegal. Our jury selection process is clearly long overdue for an overhaul, but perhaps the intervention you’ve discovered that mandates fines for prosecutors who exclude minorities is a great first step in the right direction.

  2. You make some very valid and interesting points concerning the issue of personal bias, discrimination, and ethical standards of the criminal justice system. Sadly, I think often in police incidents we often do not know the “full story, or actions, words, events leading up to heated exchanges and abusive actions. It is the duty of all law enforcement without discrimination to “serve and protect”. Socially, both as civilians and officers of the law we have gone backwards and increased rather than work on diminishing walls of question built around intent and purpose.

    I agree with the need for juries to represent a community, even if it delays and prohibits a “speedy trial” as defendants are entitled to, I do not think there can be justice is a jury is skewed and made of non community members, the exception to this is in high profile cases where local coverage of events will negatively impact the ability for a juror to avoid normative conformity. Jurors can be dismissed during the voir dire process for any number of reasons but these reasons should be based on their personal views, understanding or exposure of subjective information related to a trial, and the jurors ability to meet and carry out requirements expected of them based on the type of trial.

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