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More Adventures in Jury Selection, or: How I Lost All Faith in Our Criminal Justice System

My friend the Info Glutton blogged about the Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley incident recently. I grew up rather sheltered, and the gap between police and the black community in this country really sunk in for me during a jury selection process I witnessed a few years ago:

Some facts: Someone was shot (but not killed) in Chinatown during a fight. The defendant is being charged with the shooting, attempted murder, I believe, along with a litany of related charges like weapon possession and such. The defendant is Latino. For the record the prosecutor is a white woman, and the defense attorney is an Asian man..

How jury selection works: There's a pool of a 60 or 70 prospective jurors (of which I was one). They need a jury of 12, plus 2 alternates, but they call up more than that, about 18 I think. The two attorneys ask them questions, and a few are dismissed "for cause" if they have a conflict of interest or a good excuse to skip jury duty. Then each attorney has a chance to dismiss one juror for no cause. If they do, the opposing attorney gets to do the same, and so on. If they both pass consecutively, the selection process ends.

So here's how the question goes: Prosecutor says some police officers will be testifying, and asks every black juror if they have anything against cops. Defense attorney objects and points out that the cops arrived on the scene after the shooting and didn't actually witness anything, so the defense won't be arguing against anything the cops say anyway; the cops' testimony won't be crucial. Prosecutor proceeds to ask every black juror about cops anyway.

Now for the dismissal phase. The prosecutor dismisses a black juror. The defense attorney objects. The two lawyers approach the bench. The judge allows it. The defense attorney passes on his turn. The prosecutor dismisses another black juror. The defense attorney again objects. The judge again allows. The defense attorney again passes. Some of the black jurors had said they have no problems with cops. Others had said things like, "To be honest, if I see a cop coming, I walk the other way." Regardless, the prosecutor doesn't stop until every black juror is gone.

The instant the last juror is gone, the roles reverse. The defense attorney starts dismissing jurors seemingly at random, while the prosecutor passes. The defense attorney dismisses jurors until there are well under 12 total, so they have to re-fill from the pool. As far as I can tell, his only goal is to get another black juror up there.

This process continues for most of two days. The prosecutor asks the black jurors if they have problems with cops, and then, regardless of their answers, kicks them all out. The defense attorney then randomly kicks out just about everyone until they have to refill from the pool again, and there is another black juror.

Finally, the prosecutor leaves one black juror in the pool. It is an elderly woman, who had said she had no problems with cops, and the prosecutor leaves her in. Both attorneys pass. Everyone in the room breaths a sigh of relief. I am still sitting in the pool, unselected, among only half a dozen others, if that. They had dismissed some 50 people! The judge asks the jury one last time if anyone has any reason to think they might not be able to be impartial. The elderly black woman raises her hand. She tells her tale.

Around ten years ago, she was driving along when the cops mistook her car for a reported stolen vehicle (of the same make). They surrounded her car, guns drawn, and screamed at her to turn off the engine. She did so. They screamed at her to roll down her window and toss her keys out. She couldn't, because she had power windows. So she made gestures to ask if she can turn on her engine, and they cops were like, no way. She asked if she can open the door, and they cops were like, no way! She couldn't open the window to throw the keys out, and she couldn't open the door, either! She was paralyzed and afraid she was going to be shot. Finally, she ever-so-slowly cracked her door open and tossed the keys out before promptly passing out. Upon waking her, the cops asked if she wanted a ride to the hospital, and she said no way. Everyone is stunned and horrified at the experience she had.

So. Prosecutor immediately moves to dismiss this woman. The defense attorney objects, saying, the prosecutor already passed. The prosecutor says that was before the new information surfaced. They approach the bench. Judge calls a recess. When we get back, the elderly black juror is still in her seat, and the jury selection process is finally over. I get to go home.

I never found out what happened to that case, but here's what I learned: Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney must have believed that black people have a high chance of finding against the side of the law, even if the defendant isn't even black, as in this case. (Keep in mind that criminal trials require a unanimous verdict, so all you need is one dissenter.) It was easier to fault the prosecutor for dismissing all the black people, but it was just as cynical of the defense attorney not to accept any jury unless it had a black person. They were both smart people just trying to win their case, so their predictions about how black jurors act must have been at least statistically true.

It was sad to me that the jury selection process for criminal trials is so blatantly based entirely on race and no other factor. It made a mockery of the whole process. How can there be justice? This process also made me sad because, if black jurors really are that much less likely to find in favor of the law, it really shows how deep the divide must be between the black community and law enforcement. I never saw it so vividly as I did those two days.

Funny how you never see this stuff on Law & Order, eh?

Our criminal justice system is a joke.

Comments (2)

OMG, what a horrible experience that elderly black woman had. If she had had a heart attack during that experience, I could imagine the public furor.

Second comment, in SF, the DA often tries to have Asians on the jury because we are seen as being pro-law & order, pro-cops.

yeah totally hear you on that.

they want easily brainwashed and easily maneuvered people. it's really just a circus show with dancing bears and ponies being led about.

just like when you're pulled over and it's really just a cop's attempt to solicit tax money or further his career and you just happened to be an easier target than most.

sucks to be poor and disenfranchised

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 25, 2009.

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