Jury Duty Made Me Lose My Faith In The System
By Anne Bean
I had never seen the inside of a courtroom until my jury duty a few years ago. In part, this is because I’m a middle-class white woman. My interactions with law enforcement have been ridiculously benign as a result of my white privilege. I once accidentally cut a cop off in traffic while taking a left turn, and he didn’t arrest me, handcuff me, or even order me out of my vehicle. He pulled me over, took a look at my out-of-state driver’s license and the questionable registration paperwork of my rental car, and let me go on my way.
So in 2013, when my jury duty letter came, I was annoyed at the disruption to my work day, but also had a sense of civic duty: I would finally get to participate in the justice system! Hooray! The first qualms hit me after I had gone through the metal detectors of the King County Superior Court building and was sitting in the lobby full of potential jurors, filling out the form about my demographics and job. I had no children or people depending on me for care. I freelanced, and therefore had the flexibility to spend two to five days of my work week with a laptop at the court building without losing clients or my job. Ten bucks a day in compensation — a rate that hasn’t changed since the 1950s — was not going to burden me financially, because I could sit and do paid work. But how many people were in the same boat as me? How many people weren’t in the room in the first place, or would need to be excused from duty after two days because their work or family made it necessary?
After our surveys were collected, a few groups of potential jurors were called in to various courtrooms to be questioned regarding specific cases. This process is called voir dire, and it is intended to eliminate biased jurors. I was part of a pool assigned to a criminal trial that was described to us as “short, lasting no more than a week.” We were lined up according to a prescribed numerical order and ushered into the courtroom, where the first 12 potential jurors sat in the jury seats and everyone else lined up on the courtroom benches. In our courtroom, the thirty or so potential jurors were joined by the trial judge, lawyers for the prosecution and defense, and the defendant, who was a black man in his twenties.
Until 1880, black people were not allowed to serve on juries in this country. Even after the Supreme Court changed that law, jury selection remained a racially biased institution. It wasn’t until 1985 that the landmark case Batson v. Kentucky said that lawyers could not strike jurors from the panel based on race. However, the 1995 case Purkett v. Elem clarified that lawyers could peremptorily strike jurors for “race-neutral” reasons, no matter how irrelevant or ridiculous. It’s up to the trial judge to decide if the prosecution’s reasons for striking a juror are reasonable. Reasons like hair, age, or profession are acceptable justifications easily twisted to target black potential jurors.
In the case of this trial, the prosecution did not need to worry about trumping up a reason to exclude black people from the jury. There were only a handful of non-white people in the room in the first place, and most of them were far enough back on the benches to have a low chance of making it up to the jury box. This makes some sense statistically; King County is 62% white and only 6.7% black. But the case in question was one of the approximately 1% of criminal cases brought to jury trial in King County in 2013, and if this particular defendant was deemed guilty and given time in prison, he would be one of the 36.4% of the defendants booked in 2013 who were black. So while the odds of having black jurors in King County may track with the overall demographics, the “odds” are institutionally skewed for the black people on the other side of the bar.
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We were not told the charge or specific details of the case; this is standard practice to prevent bias. But we were asked a lot of questions about guns. Was it wrong to have or fire a gun when you weren’t supposed to, even if no one got hurt? How did we feel about a bullet not aimed at a person, but potentially affecting those around us? That sort of thing. It sounded, to my white liberal imagination, like the defendant had possessed and maybe fired a gun in the air or perhaps at a road sign, and that no one had been hit or injured.
To me, this screamed “trumped-up charges” and “legacy of slavery.” After slavery was abolished, the U.S. judicial system took over; its policies of prisoner leasing became an extension of slavery, or as Douglas Blackmon called it in his 2008 book, “slavery by another name.” In the postwar 1800s, black people could be arrested for “offenses” like unemployment or changing jobs without their employers’ permission. This landed them in prison, where they were leased to for-profit companies as de facto slaves. In our modern era, prisoner leasing and peonage have been replaced with for-profit prisons and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Without knowing the details of the situation, I felt sick imagining myself sitting on an all-white jury, helping to put yet another black man in jail. I felt incoherent in the moment. I think I said enough gibberish about “stories society feeds us” and “my understanding of the variety of reasons people have guns” that even if I had made it to the jury box, I would have likely been asked off the jury by the prosecution. The person excused the fastest was a young white woman who said that she had grown up in Louisiana and therefore associated gun violence with white people. The prosecution couldn’t get rid of her soon enough.
But does it really matter whether or not there’s a diverse jury? According to a 2006 Tufts University study, yes. Racially diverse mock juries, given the same case, were more likely to talk longer about case facts, directly discuss racism, make fewer errors, and give more leniency to the black defendant than all-white juries. But in King County, and in many other places across the country, the racism baked into the selection process makes that kind of jury an idyllic dream. Who can show up to the courtroom, who ends up in the courtroom, who gets a juried trial in the first place, and who is chosen to be on the jury is a deck stacked against non-white defendants.
As obvious as it is to me now, that sweaty hour in the courtroom was the moment I realized that the criminal justice system is not about the goodness or badness of a person — it’s about deciding how situations curated by a racist police force line up with specific laws. On that day, in the courtroom, there was no plaintiff; the charge was brought by “The People.” There was no way to know who, if anyone, thought this man did anything wrong, besides the police. I didn’t know whether he was guilty or innocent, and of what. Did he act correctly or incorrectly in the situation? I couldn’t know until I was already set up in a situation that was biased against him. I’d have never been selected to be on the jury unless I lied about my own neutrality. I couldn’t be an agent of justice, just a cog in a centuries-old machine.
I was still fourth in line when the jury was filled, entirely with white people, mostly with middle-aged people. I was thanked for my service and dismissed. I felt a lot of conflicting things: anger, the ominous presence of my own white privilege, slight disappointment that I hadn’t been on the jury to hear the whole case. But mostly, I felt like I had somehow dodged a bullet, a bullet that wasn’t aimed at me, but was going to affect those around me.