In hundreds of trials over a 10-year period, prosecutors in a Louisiana county rejected potential black jurors three times as often as they rejected potential jurors of other races—a trend which is reflected in court systems around the country, new reporting published Monday has found.
Blackstrikes: A Study of the Racially Disparate Use of Peremptory Challenges by the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office (pdf), published by Reprieve Australia, analyzed 332 trials between 2003 and 2012.
While the report focuses on one region of Louisiana, additional research by the New York Times draws connections between those statistics and others from courts throughout the nation.
In the U.S., peremptory challenges allow attorneys to reject jurors without giving a reason. But if those dismissals are disputed on the basis of race or gender, prosecutors must give a "neutral" excuse for the decision. According to the Times, such reasons include things like having long hair, wearing a beard, living in a low-income neighborhood, failing to meet eye contact, having a hyphenated last name, or displaying bad posture, among others. In Caddo, the study found that prosecutors rejected 46 percent of potential black jurors on peremptory grounds.
"Not one defendant was acquitted in a trial where there were two or fewer black jurors," writes Ursula Noye, vice president of Reprieve Australia and the study's author. "The acquittal rate in the 49 trials where the number of black jurors was three or more, was 12 [percent]. In trials with five or more black jurors, defendants are acquitted 19 [percent] of the time."
Out of 8,318 potential jurors analyzed during that 10-year period, only 35 percent were black—though Caddo's population is 48 percent black. The reasons for that discrepancy, according to Northwestern University School of Law professor Shari Diamond, could themselves be influenced by other racially skewed elements of the American justice system.
Diamond told the Times that "[b]lacks may be less likely to be on jury lists that are drawn from voter registration records, less likely to appear when called, more likely to qualify for hardship exemptions and more likely to be disqualified for felony convictions."
But of that 35 percent, prosecutors rejected nearly half through peremptory challenges, while only rejecting 15 percent of other potential jurors on similar grounds.
According to the report:
A statistical analysis of this disparity shows that the difference is significant. Some individual prosecutors struck black prospective jurors at rates of 4.5 and 5 times the rate they struck those who are not black.
While a disparity in the rate of strikes between prospective jurors who are black and not black may be subject to innocent explanation, the consistently high blackstrikes rate across 332 trials over ten years indicates otherwise. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the pattern disclosed in this study strongly suggests that race has played a role in the exercise of peremptory challenges by the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office.
As part of the national trend, the Times reports:
[I]n Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina...prosecutors struck black jurors at double or triple the rates of others.
In Georgia, prosecutors excluded every black prospective juror in a death penalty case against a black defendant, which the Supreme Court has agreed to review this fall.
“If you repeatedly see all-white juries convict African-Americans, what does that do to public confidence in the criminal justice system?” asked Elisabeth A. Semel, the director of the death penalty clinic at the law school at the University of California, Berkeley.
In a 1987 death penalty case in Georgia, a 34-year-old black woman was excluded from the jury for being too close in age to the defendant, a 19-year-old black man. But the prosecutors did not challenge the eight potential white jurors who were 35 or younger.
That case, Foster v. Chatman, will be heard later this year by the U.S. Supreme Court. Their decision may change the process of jury selection, the Times writes.
Recent human rights protests around the country have highlighted deep-seated institutional racism in the American judicial system, such as the New York Police Department's racial profiling policies, the criminalization of poverty found in Ferguson, Missouri, or decades of off-the-books torture carried out against majority-black detainees on secret sites in Chicago. But Noye's report exposes the extent to which those systems can reach. "Next to voting," she told the Times, serving on a jury is "perhaps the most important civil right."