Why jury selection discrimination hurts more than the defendant

The Equal Justice Initiative has filed a lawsuit alleging that an Alabama prosecutor has abused the voir dire process to systematically exclude African-Americans from serving on death-penalty juries. The thrust of the complaint is the miscarriage of justice this causes:

The jury in every death-penalty case in Houston County over this period has been all white or had only a single black juror despite the fact that the circuit is nearly 25% African American. Houston County has the highest per capita death sentencing rate in Alabama.

One might expect such a complaint to foreground the defendants harmed by the alleged discrimination, but in its October 24 press release, the Equal Justice Initiative chose to make a juror the face of its suit:

“Removing people from a jury on the basis of race is shameful and inexcusable,” said Plaintiff Vicky Allen Brown. In 1998, an Alabama appellate court concluded that Valeska’s office illegally struck Brown from jury service in a capital trial because of her race. An accountant who was born and raised in Houston County, Brown joined the lawsuit to expose and challenge Valeska’s illegal jury selection practices because “many times you cannot do anything about discrimination – especially when it is committed by public officials who know how to disguise and justify their behavior.”

“Removing people from a jury on the basis of race is shameful and inexcusable,” said Plaintiff Vicky Allen Brown. In 1998, an Alabama appellate court concluded that Valeska’s office illegally struck Brown from jury service in a capital trial because of her race. An accountant who was born and raised in Houston County, Brown joined the lawsuit to expose and challenge Valeska’s illegal jury selection practices because “many times you cannot do anything about discrimination – especially when it is committed by public officials who know how to disguise and justify their behavior.”

What is less obvious from this suit is the harm that voir dire discrimination does to plaintiffs like Ms. Brown. As we have argued in our research on juries, the jury experience provides a rare opportunity in civic education. Beyond learning about the legal system itself, jury deliberation can promote attitudes more favorable toward political and community participation, confidence in government, and more. It also leads to higher voting rates among those previously disengaged. In other words, excluding a specific population disadvantages those people in a democracy.

As this important lawsuit moves forward, we will watch it closely. It’s our hope that the will continue to shed light on how the alleged discrimination affected the jurors themselves, as well as the defendants who may have been deprived a jury of their peers in life-or-death trials.

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About jgastil

John Gastil is Head and Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, where he specializes in political deliberation and group decision making.
This entry was posted in Social/political impact of juries, Voir dire and jury selection. Bookmark the permalink.

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