Jury duty is something we all love to hate. And whether it’s because of the logistical headache or out of a deeper sentiment around the criminal legal system, there are entire articles and X, formerly Twitter, threads of tactics for getting out of this duty. But acting as a juror can help bring diverse perspectives to an often inequitable process, especially if you identify as non-white. Although inherently inequitable and deeply flawed, bringing a nuanced perspective to jury duty can lessen the impact of an inherently unjust criminal legal system.
The jury selection process stymies representation. A jury summons is sent to citizens selected from each county’s voter registration or driver’s license lists. Since barriers to access make people of color statistically less likely to be registered to vote or have a driver’s license, they are often left out (NPR). Once chosen, jurors miss work to serve jury duty. Courts compensate jurors anywhere from $5 to $50/day, a low wage that is enormously prohibitive for those who can’t afford to miss a day of work or whose jobs don’t offer paid time off (Jury Duty 101).
• Try to attend jury duty if you have the time and financial means to do so.
• Learn about jury nullification and how it can help you stand for justice.
• Consider: what would a fair trial look like to you? What would you hope to receive from the jury in your case?
Some of this is by design. The U.S. has a long history of excluding marginalized folk from participating on juries. Black men weren’t allowed to serve on juries until the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were ratified. Regardless of race, women weren’t commonly members of juries until the 1930s (Library of Congress). And even today, formerly incarcerated people are banned from participating on a jury, despite the valid and necessary first-hand experience they bring to the conversation (Inquest).
This juxtaposition was on full display during the trial of the three white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, while he was out for a jog because they believed he looked suspicious. Even though racial aggression was on full display in the case, the jury consisted of 11 white people and one Black person. The prosecutors repeatedly removed potential Black jurors from the trial, calling it unconstitutional to have them present. In Glynn County, where Arbery was killed and the trial occurred, nearly 27% of the population is Black (NPR). This suggestion implies that having Black representation on issues that directly affect their health and safety is unconstitutional. It reflects decades where all-white juries made key decisions in lynching trials across the South (EJI).
Equitable jury representation helps offset an overwhelmingly white legal system. Although 40% of Americans are people of color, nearly every elected prosecutor in America today is white (EJI), as are 79% of federal judges (Center for American Progress).
But it’s not representation alone that we’re looking to claim. Studies prove that a racially diverse jury is a more effective one. Statistically, white juries are more likely to be racially biased and make factual errors (APA). They’re also less likely to be viewed as an impartial jury by the public. Even more damning, a 2012 report found that all-white juries find Black defendants guilty 16% more often than white defendants (Duke). Racial diversity and other group-based dynamics lead to improved outcomes and help each member perform at their best (APA).
The 1986 Supreme Court decision Batson v. Kentucky forbade lawyers from excluding jurors based on race. But it’s difficult to enforce. Defense attorneys have uncovered training manuals that teach prosecutors how to create plausible-sounding “race-neutral” explanations for striking Black jurors, such as “appearance,” “lifestyle concerns,” or living in a “high crime area” (Marshall Project). Several states have passed legislation to help enforce diverse representation on juries, but many issues remain.
In response, citizens have been called to practice “jury nullification,” sometimes referred to as “conscientious acquittal.” In these cases, the jury will decide to return a “not guilty” verdict even if they believe the defendant has broken the law. This isn’t to merely protect the defendant but calls attention to the injustice of the law itself. Consider how harsh drug laws are against people of color, for example, or how harsh minimum sentencing can ruin a young person’s life. Although many don’t know about the practice now, historically, it’s been used to protect white people in acting against civil rights laws like the Fugitive Slave Act. It’s entirely legal and powerful in standing against unjust laws and worth discussing if you find yourself on a jury (ACLU).
As citizens, consider how to use this opportunity to advocate for those most marginalized—especially if they’re not present in the deliberations. It might be inconvenient and annoying, but your participation can change the course of history and add much-needed perspective to an inequitable process.
• Throughout history, marginalized people have been underrepresented on juries—and in the broader criminal legal system.
• A more racially diverse jury is likely to make better, less racist decisions.
• Diverse juries disrupt an overwhelmingly white legal system.
*This piece was originally published on 08/10/22. It was updated by The ARD on 08/22/23.