January 22, 2008

Are juries fair?

Whether you think so may depend on your race, according to the results of a Harris Poll released yesterday.

Not surprisingly, most white respondents said yes. Most African Americans said no.

To some extent, both answers may be right. Whether the jury system is fair may depend a lot on the race of the person being judged. At least that's what an expert witness testified just last week, at an ongoing hearing in Cape Cod, Massachusetts over whether a black man convicted of murder should get a new trial.

Christopher McCowen was convicted of murder by a mainly white jury. Within two weeks of his conviction, three jurors came forward with concerns about allegedly racist remarks made by other jurors. One juror, for example, reportedly argued during deliberations that blacks were more violent.

Sam Sommers, a Tufts University psychology professor who's done some intriguing research on jury deliberations (see my recent post), testified last week that this stereotype of black men as violent is pervasive, even among individuals who believe themselves to be fair-minded.

Sommers' research on jury deliberations helps explain the racial gap found by the Harris pollsters.

The pollsters found some other interesting things:
  • Although most Americans have been called for jury duty, fewer than a quarter have actually served.
  • More educated people are even less likely to serve.
That latter finding (about which the Drug and Device Law blog has more to say) is too bad for scientific expert witnesses, because educated people find it easier to grasp the technical concepts about which we are often called to testify.

Hat tip to the Deliberations blog. More resources on jury deliberations are available at my Jan. 3 post on Sommers' research. The Cape Cod Times has ongoing coverage of the McCowen case.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you read the transcript you will find that no juror argued that blacks are more violent, not one. It simply never happened, The comments made were at best insensitive, and may even have compromised the fairness of Mr. McCowen's trial, but it is also fair to say that the verdict was based on the evidence and not on racial bias by jury members.