Black . . . It was just descriptive

Did you hear about this African-American man convicted of raping and killing a white woman?

 The twist is that the jurors have been called back to testify about whether there was racial bias in the jury room. I find it interesting that the judge did not worry about the racial bias in the courtroom like when the prosecutor said, ‘this is what happens when a 200 pound black man beats up a woman.” Hmmm. 

The article says:  Almost everyone agreed that jurors occasionally referred to race while debating whether Mr. McCowen was guilty and that at least once, a black juror had accused a white juror of racism. But most said the references did not reflect bias. “The word ‘black’ was used numerous times” in the deliberations, said Taryn O’Connell, a white juror. “It was always used descriptively, just as it was in the courtroom.”

Descriptive of what? bens-book.jpg

Ben’s book (hey look, I learned something new about how to make the blog work!) taught me how pervasive and blatant race is in the jury room. In fact, when I first read it, I thought, this is it! This has to be the end of the death penalty!

So lots of issues here — first, is there any appropriate way to use race in the jury room? And, is it OK for judges to call back jurors? Will this inhibit free and open deliberation? Ben — chime in if you are here.

One more thing — my friend and colleague, Shari Diamond is quoted in one of the articles. She’s one of the leading authorities on juries and maybe she will chime in.

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6 Responses to Black . . . It was just descriptive

  1. benfleurysteiner says:

    My hats of to the judge for having the guts to give voice to the all pervasive influence of race in our criminal justice system. Perhaps this judge isn’t afraid of “too much justice” as so many robed umpires are and continue to be….

  2. lankdangle says:

    I don’t think we should have juries at all for exactly these reasons — people are biassed and we don’t want that int he criminal justice system at all. I mean, judges are too, but with a jury, there is no way to figure out what happened — at least a judge’s record is public.

  3. robertlnelson says:

    Ben,
    Why do you think the jury voted to convict? If some of the jurors thought race had infected the process, why did they not refuse to go along? Why not send a note to the judge during deliberations?

    Man, the picture in the Times looks like the set of To Kill a Mockingbird. Scary.

  4. laurabethnielsen says:

    One reason that hie explains in the book is that the African-American(s) on the jury seek to seem reasonable/part of civil society as compared to the African-American defendant. So the conversation goes something like this:

    white juror: not all black people are muderous lunatics — you over there, you seem like a nice guy.

    The interesting thing is that both black and white jurors report this after the fact —

  5. Mary Rose says:

    The judge’s record may be public, but that means the judge is aware of that when providing the reasons for his/her decision. So the judge could have the same thoughts as a juror but just know how to phrase an opinion in ways that do not highlight biases. Juries may be flawed but their flaws are preferable (to me) to those of a single, elite decision maker, who has heard a million cases just like the one about which he/she is supposedly being open minded.

    On polling the jury: I’m very torn on this. It is important to recognize a problem that was not previously brought to the judge’s attention, especially on the issue of race. But it is a dangerous precedent….the secrecy is there to protect the jury from feeling like they will be pressured to decide a case the way the state wants them to decide it.

  6. laurabethnielsen says:

    good points, mary. A tension for sure. So if you are the judge and you think it might be racially motivated, do you poll? what is the law, anyway? can a lawyer request it?

    For those who don’t know, Mary Rose is another foremost expert in the jury research world. She has been cited by the Supreme Court and I want her to be a blog contributor. Wouldn’t that be fun?

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