Academic journal article Jones Law Review

Racism on Our Juries: The Impossibility of Impartiality in Capital Cases

Academic journal article Jones Law Review

Racism on Our Juries: The Impossibility of Impartiality in Capital Cases

Article excerpt

"The reality of race relations in this country is such that we simply may not presume impartiality" (1)


Racism in this country is like the elephant in the room that everyone sees but no one dares acknowledge. Perhaps the lack of acknowledgment is due to the fact that the face of racism since the Civil Rights Movement has changed to one of style rather than substance. In other words, the days of blatant racism have been replaced with a more subtle, unconscious form that most of us fail to even recognize. (2) Virtually gone are the days when racism can be proven when the requisite intent behind any racist motive has been replaced with the subconscious bias that leads to the same unfortunate result. While racism is harmful and unacceptable in any context, there is potentially no worse result than when its manifestation culminates in a death sentence.

In the United States criminal justice system, black defendants have received disproportionate and discriminatory treatment when compared to similarly situated white defendants. (3) This treatment is especially true in death penalty cases. (4) While the disparity in treatment stems from many factors, the most pervasive comes from the juries that make the sentencing decisions and the prosecutors who select those jurors. Even though courts have addressed these problems and recognized they exist, the current state of the law does little to rectify the problem. The United States Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a fair and impartial jury, but this guarantee only goes so far as to require diversity in the pool from which the jury will be selected. (5) The Constitution does not guarantee a defendant the same diversity on the jury itself. (6) Without the requirement for such diversity, the opportunity exists for subconscious racism to be exercised to the defendant's detriment. Due to this new form of racial bias, it becomes almost impossible for a disproportionate jury to be impartial in capital cases, particularly when the defendant has little or no representation of his race on the jury charged with deciding his fate. Furthermore, this new face of racism eliminates the ability of the defendant to successfully allege racial discrimination because unconscious prejudice is not likely to be proven, and because the use of peremptory challenges in jury selection can be cleverly masked to hide the true reason why an eligible juror of the defendant's race has been stricken. As a result, the dangerousness of allowing this unconscious form of prejudice in capital sentencing directly threatens a defendant's constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury.

The absence of a constitutional guarantee for proportional representation of a particular race in capital juries increases the likelihood of unfair and biased results against defendants of the underrepresented race. Because of this increased bias, a judicial and/or political remedy is necessary to alleviate the inherent impartiality of juries with the power to impose the death penalty and to preserve the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. The potential remedies to be discussed include recognizing a Sixth Amendment right to a proportioned jury, not just a proportioned jury pool, and/or adopting the disparate impact standard used to evaluate racial discrimination in civil rights cases which removes the impossible task of proving purposeful discrimination.


There is no shortage of examples where racism has been blatantly displayed in courtrooms throughout this country. In a Georgia capital case, a court appointed attorney made this single reference to his client during the trial, "[y]ou have got a little ole nigger man over there ... [h]e is poor and he is broke ... [h]e is ignorant." (7) That defendant was sentenced to death. …

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