by Kevin Bliss
Wake Forest University criminal law professor Ronald Wright recently published a research paper, which proves—with statewide evidence—that the peremptory challenge process of jury selection in North Carolina trials is racially biased.
Prosecutors, who are first to use their peremptory challenges, remove about 20 percent of the African-Americans within a jury pool due to statistics showing that they are more apt to acquit than white jurors. This results in a jury selection where the ratio of blacks to whites is much smaller than in the original pool.
In an opinion piece Wright prepared for The New York Times, he states that court records on people struck from a jury pool due to peremptory challenges are not easily accessible. He said most courthouses only keep hard copies of initial jury pools in the court clerk’s office where it could take months or even years to collect data and cross check for preemptory strikes for a usable database. Because of this, he said the only evidence to show reform is urgently needed is common knowledge or, as he calls it, “folk wisdom.”
Wright conducted a study along with his colleagues at the Wake Forest University School of Law on juror removal in North Carolina. There are typically 15 or more peremptory challenges allowed to both the prosecutor and the defense in most states, along with any judge’s removals for cause. In addition to the prosecution’s propensity to remove non-white jurors, Wright statistically proved that it is 20 percent more probable that a judge would remove a black juror “for cause” than a white one. The end result, Wright said, is that a defense attorney’s peremptory strikes do not offset the racially biased jury composition produced by the prosecutor and the judge.
The Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution prevents attorneys from removing a juror from the jury pool based on race, but this requires a judge to specifically state that the reason for removal is a pretext for racial bias. Wright stated that this is “a notoriously steep standard.” He said more attention should be paid to systems like the Washington Supreme Court’s recently adopted rule that outlaws peremptory challenges based on reasons that correlate with race, such as “prior contact with law enforcement” or “living in a high-crime neighborhood.”
Wright claimed that this inherent racial bias prevents a defendant from being judged by a cross-section of his or her community and makes those excluded from the jury pool more cynical about the justice system. He believes that prosecutors and judges need to be held more accountable for their actions and that trust needs to be encouraged between the public and the justice system. He suggested making all jury selection information available online for easy access. Judges and prosecutors could then be evaluated on their tendencies for any racial discrimination.
Wright closed his article by stating, “The status quo shows that barely enforceable constitutional doctrine isn’t enough. It’s time to bring this vital process of justice from behind closed doors and into the sunlight. It’s the only way to ensure that defendants are judged by a representative cross section of their community, not the filtered few that litigants want to see in the jury box.”
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