The Bill of Rights guarantees most criminal defendants that they can have their case heard by a jury of their peers. But African Americans on trial for serious crimes often find few, if any, black faces among the jurors deciding their fate.
This observation, made by prosecutors and other critics, is at the heart of a case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 2. Attorneys for a black man on death row after being convicted in 1987 in the killing of a white woman. His attorneys are arguing that their client’s Sixth Amendment rights were violated when the prosecution carefully removed all African Americans from the potential jury pool, to ensure an all-white jury heard the case.
Jury selection is part of most criminal pre-trial proceedings. Potential jurors answer questions asked by prosecutors and defense attorneys. Then the judge may remove any jurors he or she believes cannot be impartial. This is known as “for cause” removals.
After that, attorneys on each side have the right to strike jurors without providing a reason. This is called a “peremptory strike.”
A Supreme Court ruling from 1986, just before the trial at issue on Monday, added a third step, to try to avoid racist peremptory strikes. Under this rule, if a defense attorney finds a racial pattern in the prosecution’s strikes, prosecutors have to justify their strikes by providing a non-racial reason for striking each individual juror.
However, experts say that prosecutors have violated the spirit of this ruling by coming up with pretextual reasons for their racially motivated peremptory strikes. Studies have shown that black people are struck from juries far more often than whites, NPR reports.
This matters, especially when the death penalty is a possibility, because black defendants on trial when the victim was white are much less likely to receive the death penalty where there is even one black man on the jury.
It will be some time before the Court makes a ruling on this case, but we will keep an eye out and update our readers on the results.