July 2, 2007

Racial Bias in Jury Selection is Common Yet Denied, Study Finds

It is illegal to kick someone off a jury because of his or her race. That’s what the Supreme Court ruled back in 1986, in the case of Batson v. Kentucky. But in the real world, proving such a “Batson violation” is next-to impossible.

Now, researchers have validated this difficulty through laboratory research examining the decision-making of three groups of participants – college students, advanced law students, and practicing attorneys.

Participants were told to assume the role of a prosecutor in a criminal trial involving a Black defendant. Across the board, participants kicked off Black jurors at higher rates than White jurors. But they justified their decisions using race-neutral excuses.

This research finding conforms to a growing body of data on subtle, sometimes unconscious racism.

“People can offer compelling explanations for their behavior even when unaware of the factors – such as race – that are actually influential,” wrote researchers Samuel Sommers and Michael Norton in the current issue of the journal Law & Human Behavior. “Even if attorneys consciously and strategically consider race during jury selection, they would be unlikely to admit it.”

Of course, prosecutors do not have to be closet racists to dismiss African American jurors. Jury research consistently finds that African Americans are less likely than are White jurors to convict, particularly in interracial cases involving African American defendants. Such findings are complicated, however, because real-life juries are complex groups rather than the single individuals used in most of the laboratory studies.

The full article, “Race-Based Judgments, Race-Neutral Justifications: Experimental Examination of Peremptory Use and the Batson Challenge Procedure,” is available on-line.

See also, "How Much Do We Really Know about Race and Juries? A Review of Social Science Theory and Research." S. R. Sommers and Phoebe Ellsworth, Chicago-Kent Law Review, 2003, pp. 997-1031.