In Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” she writes “In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins.”
The clinical term for this is white juror bias—a term referring to the prejudice facing black defendants in American courtrooms across the country. It’s no secret that the incarceration system in this country disproportionately affects black men, and many believe that white juror bias is part of the problem.
The idea that predominantly white juries may possess influential bias in courtrooms is not new, but it gained the attention of the media in 2013 when an almost all-white jury (91 percent) found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin under Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. Shortly after the verdict, Duke University researchers studied records of more than 700 non-capital felony cases between 2000 and 2010 and found that black defendants were more likely to be convicted than a white defendant, making a strong case for the existence of white juror bias.
More recently, white juror bias became a topic when the racial makeup of the jury responsible for the outcome of the Michael Brown-Darren Wilson case was revealed.
The jury is made up of six white men, three white women, one black man and two black women. The makeup (75-percent white) is roughly representative of the demographics of St. Louis County where the trial will be held, but for a case already steeped in racial tension, the proportions are important. It will take nine jurors to convict Darren Wilson.
White juror bias is a problem for several reasons. The first, and arguably most important, is that bias of any kind in a jury pool hinders the Sixth Amendment—the right to a trial by a fair and impartial jury. The second problem is the implication of the bias—that black men or women are more guilty by virtue of being black. This idea has legislative precedence in the Dorsey v. State case, tried in the years following the Fourteenth Amendment, where race was deemed permissible as evidence. Jurors were instructed to take into account the race of the defendant (black) who had been accused of the rape of a white woman and used that ‘evidence’ to refute his defense.
Jury selection is the seed of white juror bias, and has often been referenced as the real issue. The idea is that if more black men and women are selected for juries, white juror bias will decrease and defendants will receive a fair trial. The Supreme Court addressed the issue of juror composition after a number of appeals were filed by black defendants weary of white-washed juries as in Batson v. Kentucky (1986). The court ruled that prosecutors could not dismiss possible jurors solely on the basis of race. Still in many places, as is the case in Florida where George Zimmerman was tried, the jury pool is always slightly skewed toward being predominantly white.
The prejudice of white juries doesn’t just affect the outcome of the trial, but also the degree of conviction. A statistical study with more than 200 controls in place was conducted by David Baldus in 1990 and found that black defendants in Georgia were more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants, particularly if the victim of the incident was white. This means not only are black men and women being convicted at higher rates, but upon conviction they are facing steeper punishments. Which of course means that even in the realm of injustice, blacks and whites are still not equal.
How is white juror bias remedied? Some say the removal of peremptory challenges—the dismissal of possible jurors for no reason—may help. Justice Steven Gonzalez of the Washington Supreme Court has said that peremptory challenges are “often based largely or entirely on racial stereotypes or generalizations.” Either way it’s clear that for black Americans, innocent until proven guilty is not quite the standard.