Skip to main content

A jury pool's race can deny justice

By Shamena Anwar, Patrick Bayer and Randi Hjalmarsson, Special to CNN
May 23, 2012 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Even the inclusion of one black person in the jury pool had a large impact on conviction rates of black people, according to the authors' study.
Even the inclusion of one black person in the jury pool had a large impact on conviction rates of black people, according to the authors' study.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Can a jury be impartial if it has no members of the defendant's race?
  • With no blacks in the jury pool, they say, black defendants were convicted at higher rate
  • Just one black in the jury pool evened up conviction rates of whites and blacks, they write
  • Because race has such an impact on trial results, they say, process should be re-examined

Editor's note: Shamena Anwar is an assistant professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University; Patrick Bayer is a professor of economics at Duke University; and Randi Hjalmarsson is an associate professor in economics at Queen Mary, University of London.

(CNN) -- The Sixth Amendment right to a trial by an impartial jury is the bedrock of our criminal justice system. Yet the promise of impartiality is called into question when defendants face juries that include few, if any, members of their race.

The small percentage of black people in the U.S. population, less than 13%, and in some cases, their systematic exclusion from juries, means that black defendants routinely face all-white juries in many states and counties.

Concerns about jury representation go hand-in-hand with the sense that the racial makeup of juries might make a big difference for conviction rates in criminal trials. Surprisingly, we know very little about this.

Because every trial has unique circumstances, it is impossible to say for certain how the jury composition affected any particular decision. Instead, much like the process of clinical trials designed to test new medications, it is necessary to examine a large number of cases to gauge the impact of juries.

Randi Hjalmarsson
Randi Hjalmarsson
Shamena Anwar
Shamena Anwar
Patrick Bayer
Patrick Bayer

In clinical drug trials, doctors randomly assign participants to treatment and control groups, giving some the medication and others a placebo. Random assignment ensures that those receiving the medication and placebo are statistically identical and, therefore, a comparison of their outcomes provides a clean test of the medicine's efficacy.

As it turns out, the real world provides exactly the same kind of random assignment for criminal trials -- the pool of jurors who are randomly called for jury duty that day. In our recent study, "The Impact of Jury Race in Criminal Trials," published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, we analyzed the results of this kind of natural experiment for over 700 felony trials in Lake and Sarasota counties in Florida from 2000-2010. The study examined how conviction rates varied with the racial composition of the pool of jurors called for each trial.

The jury pools in these trials consisted of an average of 27 members from which juries of six people -- which Florida allows in felony trials -- plus an alternate, were seated. Because the eligible jury population in these counties was less than 5% black, jury pools typically included one or two black members. There was not a single black member of the jury pool in almost 40% of the trials.

The results of our study were straightforward and striking: In cases with no blacks in the jury pool, black defendants were convicted at an 81% rate and white defendants at a 66% rate. When the jury pool included at least one black member, conviction rates were almost identical: 71% for black defendants and 73% for whites. The impact of the inclusion of even a small number of blacks in the jury pool is especially remarkable given that this did not, of course, guarantee black representation on the seated jury.

The finding that the racial composition of the jury pool had such a large impact on conviction rates raises concerns about the fairness of our criminal justice system. It is deeply disturbing that the luck of the draw regarding the makeup of the jury pool, rather than the quality of the evidence, was decisive in so many cases.

The fact that the inclusion of even one or two blacks in the jury pool had such a large impact on conviction rates also seriously calls into question whether jury representation in direct proportion to the local population is enough to ensure juries are impartial. This is especially worrisome for members of minority groups that are severely underrepresented in that population.

These findings should push the Supreme Court to reexamine the issue of jury representation at the most basic level. Although the use of peremptory challenges by attorneys to exclude blacks from juries has been a major concern that should not be minimized, racially unbalanced juries come about in most cases simply by reflecting the local eligible juror population. In fact, in the trials that we studied, blacks in the jury pool were seated in roughly the same proportion as whites. But the majority of the juries were all-white simply because there were so few blacks in the jury pool.

Of course, rethinking features of the jury selection process that we take for granted -- like proportional representation of the local population -- and designing alternatives is not easy. But if the core promise of jury impartiality is to be met, the evidence that a minimal level of racial inclusion in the jury selection process makes a substantial difference simply cannot be ignored. The fundamental fairness of our criminal justice system is at stake.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT