Justice on Trial: Systemic Racism in Jury Selection

In 1996, Allen Snyder, a Black man from Louisiana, faced charges for first degree murder.

He was on trial in Jefferson Parish, a place where a plurality of voters had cast their ballots for Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke in Louisiana’s gubernatorial election just four years earlier. 

Snyder was convicted by an all white jury and sentenced to death.

He appealed his conviction on the basis of an unrepresentative jury until his case arrived at the Supreme Court in 2008, where Stephen B. Bright, the current Harvey L. Karp Visiting Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School, argued successfully on his behalf.

Bright told The Politic that Mr. Snyder’s situation was a common one, though his ultimate triumph was unique. Black defendants across the country are routinely tried by all white juries. Most, however, do not make it on the docket of the Supreme Court— which may be their only hope to have their sentence repealed.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees defendants two things: the right to a trial by an impartial jury, and the right to trial by a jury of their peers. But Black jurors, like those in Snyder’s case, are regularly excluded from serving on juries by a series of legal practices that are rooted in systemic racism and the belief that the life experience of Black jurors renders them incapable of being impartial. 

“I have seen case after case where the only person of color in the front of the courtroom, in front of the bar, is the defendant. The judge is white, the prosecutor is white, the court appointed lawyers are white,” Bright told The Politic. “And even in communities that have fairly substantial Black populations, the jury is all white.”

Bright’s observation raises the question of whether the current criminal justice system fulfills the Constitution’s promises to Black defendants. 

Activists, lawyers, and policy experts alike agree that the jury selection system is broken at every stage of the process—and Black defendants are paying the price.

***

In 1982, James Kirkland Batson, a Black man from Kentucky, was on trial for burglary. During his trial, prosecutor Joe Gutmann used a tool called peremptory strikes to remove six jurors, including each of the four Black jurors remaining in the jury pool — hoping that a jury which looked nothing like Batson would be more likely to convict him.

Batson lived and grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Louisville. A jury of his peers, a fair cross-section of the community, should have included Black jurors.

But because of Gutmann’s use of a legal tool called peremptory strikes, the jury was completely white. Though Batson pleaded innocent, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Peremptory strikes and strikes for cause are the final chance for either party in a case to shape the jury by removing jurors they believe cannot assess the case impartially. Varying by jurisdiction, each party has a certain number of strikes for cause and peremptory strikes they can make. Strikes for cause must be explained and approved by the judge.

But peremptory strikes require no explanation and can be used for any reason—except, theoretically, race.

Yet many allege that prosecutors still routinely use these strikes to remove people of color from juries precisely because of their race, often hiding their true rationale in coded or deceptive language and explanations. 

Batson and his attorney attempted to object to the elimination of the Black jurors, but their challenge was not accepted. Batson appealed his conviction, eventually making it to the Supreme Court. Leading up to the trial, Batson’s attorneys conducted novel research to show that prosecutors were using peremptory strikes in a discriminatory manner nationwide, from California to Kentucky to Connecticut. In countless trials, Black defendants, like Batson, were tried by all white juries and given lengthy prison time—or even death sentences. 

The Supreme Court decided in 1986 that the Kentucky court had denied James Batson his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by denying him the right to a fair trial by a jury of his peers and equal protection under the law.  

In its decision on Batson v. Kentucky, the court created the Batson rule: If one party in a trial feels that the other has used a peremptory strike to remove a juror specifically because of their race, they may raise a Batson challenge requiring the other party to provide a “race-neutral” reason for the strike. If this race-neutral reason is sufficient, the court may deny the challenge.

The Batson rule was revolutionary — or at least it was supposed to be.

As in Batson’s case, prosecutors used peremptory strikes to make Snyder’s jury completely white. It was under the Batson precedent that his verdict was overturned. But his case was the exception, not the norm. 

The concern that a shared racial background makes jurors less likely to reach a guilty verdict incentivizes prosecutors to use peremptory strikes to eliminate jurors.  As a loophole to Batson, prosecutors quickly developed a list of “race-neutral” reasons for striking a juror that could be recited on the spot in the event of a Batson challenge: the juror lives in the same neighborhood as the defendant, the juror has expressed mistrust for law enforcement, the juror has a family member in prison, the juror has long nails, the juror cannot maintain eye contact.

Explanations for peremptory strikes facing a Batson challenge have become increasingly trivial, according to Bright. He lamented that even as a jury must “decide a case about whether a person lives or dies, the prosecutors are worried about whether a juror wears sunglasses or not.” 

These justifications have been used successfully to overturn Batson challenges and maintain discriminatory peremptory strikes in real cases. They are among the many that certain jurisdictions still accept as “race-neutral.” 

Truthfully, these statements are anything but. They originate from the effects of systemic racism—and perpetuate it.

Black jurors are more likely to live in the same neighborhood as the defendant due to generational cycles of redlining and gentrification. Black jurors are more likely to express distrust of law enforcement because Black Americans are subject to brutality by the police more regularly than Americans of other races. Black jurors are more likely to have an incarcerated family member because Black Americans are routinely given longer sentences for less serious crimes — and in all likelihood, that incarcerated relative would have been tried by a jury that looked nothing like them.

In a cruelly ironic way, the process required to enact the Batson rule itself perpetuates systemic racism under the guise of impartiality. To accept a Batson challenge, Bright explained, “the judge has to make two findings: one, intentional race discrimination, and two, the prosecutor lied about the reason for their strike.” But Bright reasoned that few judges are willing to say that to or about lawyers who may have once been their associates.  “That is a harsh thing to accuse someone of, even if it may be true.” 

If a Batson challenge is raised, but not accepted by the judge, the potential juror in question is removed. So when, for personal reasons, judges are not inclined to accept Batson challenges, the rule becomes essentially toothless. 

“A lot of judges were prosecutors themselves,” Bright noted, describing the social and political factors that make many judges unwilling to approve Batson challenges in their courtrooms. “They used to strike all the Black people when they were prosecutors, and now they are judges, and their chief assistant is the prosecutor.”  

The Batson rule made the exclusion of Black Americans from juries a longer process, but an end that was no less achievable. Even 35 years later, all white juries routinely try Black defendants. 

***

In June 2020, Professor Elisabeth Semel, who leads the Death Penalty Clinic at UC Berkeley’s law school, and a group of her students released a report entitled “Whitewashing the Jury Box.” The report investigates the impact of peremptory strikes on jury diversity in the state of California, where proportionate representation of Black and Latino citizens in jury pools is a goal that has not yet been achieved.

According to  Semel, lawyers like herself are meant to use peremptory strikes when “they have a good faith belief that the juror cannot be fair, and yet for reasons very specific to that juror or the circumstances cannot meet [the criteria of] the cause challenge.” 

In many instances, it is easy to see how peremptory strikes may help prevent biased jurors from judging a case. 

“There was that person who just stared at your client, and maybe we misinterpreted the stare, but the client says ‘she hates me,’ just walking into the courtroom.” Potential jurors may cause concern for a lawyer or client, though they may not be able to articulate exactly why. “You want to be able to strike those people,” former public defender Andrew Lipps told The Politic

Lipps described a theoretical potential juror who had been the victim of a burglary in the past. “The court’s question is always, ‘Notwithstanding the fact you’ve been burglarized before, can you put that experience aside and judge this case solely on the facts and the law?’ And the potential juror says, ‘yes.’ And so you don’t have a challenge for cause. But you think ‘no way do I want this person on my jury,’ so you do a peremptory strike.”

Andrew Gordon, a public defender and the Deputy Director for Community Legal Services at The Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, said that he used peremptory challenges to allow his defendants to have a role in creating the jury that would ultimately convict or acquit them. 

If Gordon likes a prospective juror but his client doesn’t trust them, “They get to call the shots, because at the end of the day, I’m not the one going to prison, they are,” he explained.

Lipps said that he would use peremptory strikes to remove jurors that, in his estimation, are not going to be forgiving of the defendant. For example, Lipps sees a straight-laced “tax accountant who crosses every T and dots every I” as a potential liability. As a defense attorney “you want a teacher. You want a social worker. You want people that you perceive as sympathetic,” he said. 

Lipps’s method is standard practice. Prosecutors and defense lawyers alike use peremptory strikes, based on their gut instincts, to curate a jury that makes both sides feel like they have a fair shot. 

But gut instincts can be fertile ground for biases and stereotypes.

In his concurring opinion on the Batson case, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that the Supreme Court’s decision to create the Batson rule would not be enough. He believed that, because racial bias is so often subconscious, racial discrimination in jury selection can be ended only by abolishing the use of peremptory strikes altogether.

Bright concurs with Justice Marshall’s assessment. He has faced many prosecutors who did not recognize the influence of their implicit biases on their decision to strike Black potential jurors.

“A lot of times,” he said, “a prosecutor may not even realize that when they look at an African American they may associate certain things with that person because of race.” 

While he believes prosecutors do use peremptory strikes explicitly to remove Black jurors because of their race, Bright also feels that the ubiquity of implicit bias is one of the biggest barriers to Batson effectively stopping the abuse of peremptory strikes. He observed that when relying on gut instincts, “it is impossible to say exactly why you struck a person and that race was not a part of your thinking.” 

Yet even among those who agree that peremptory strikes facilitate bias, many disagree about whether they should be eradicated and what the implications would be, if so. 

“No one other than Marshall — no defense attorney and no prosecutor — wants to get rid of peremptory challenges,” said Lipps, who argued a peremptory challenge case with Bright in the late 1980s. “But maybe that’s where we should go.”

Semel believes that 35 years after Justice Marshall suggested getting rid of peremptory strikes, actualizing this now may lead to unintended consequences. “As a political matter,” she said, “they are so entrenched that we may not be prepared for how we will try cases fairly without them.”

Although peremptory strikes allow bias into a system that is supposed to be unbiased, getting rid of them may merely shift whose biases are represented. Semel predicts that the same thinly-veiled racial reasons that judges have determined as neutral and therefore permissible for a peremptory strike would become acceptable grounds for cause challenges in the absence of peremptory strikes.

She further explained that abolishing peremptory strikes would be so controversial that the political battle, whether in the courts, Congress, or state legislatures, would be long and costly, taking away from efforts to solve other issues of systemic injustice.

Semel and her student co-authors advocated for a different solution to California’s peremptory strike problem. Based on a General Rule 37 created by the Washington State Supreme Court in 2018, her team helped create California Assembly Bill 3070, which was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on September 30, 2020.

Mirroring General Rule 37, A.B. 3070 will alter the process for raising a Batson challenge to make it less difficult to prove racial discrimation and make invalid any peremptory strikes for reasons which are most directly related to race, including expressing distrust of law enforcement, having family members or friends who have been arrested or convicted of a crime, living in the defendant’s neighborhood, having a child out of wedlock, receiving state benefits, lacking employment, and being a non-native English speaker.

G.R. 37 and A.B. 3070 have promising potential to improve access for all Americans to their constitutional rights of serving on juries and being tried by a jury of their peers. But even advocates of these bills fear they will not be enough.

According to Emma Tolman, a co-author of “Whitewashing the Jury Box” and former student of Professor Semel, it is likely that prosecutors will find loopholes in A.B. 3070 and — just as they did in Batson — use them to continue to exclude people of color from juries. “District attorneys are skilled at figuring out ways to be within the constraints of the law, but not necessarily within the spirit of the law,” she told The Politic

Yet, if prosecutors acted only within the spirit of the law and bills restricting the use of peremptory were air-tight, most juries would still not represent a fair cross-section of the population—the legal standard for a jury of one’s peers.

***

Peremptory strikes are just one of many factors at every level of the legal system preventing the diversification of juries. In fact, “if we are not looking until people are actually in the courthouse, we are missing a huge part of the exclusionary process,” Semel explained. Often, by the time the venire—the larger jury pool— is brought in and prosecutors can begin striking potential jurors, racial inequity and structural imbalances have already laid the ground for miscarriages of justice. 

 Most jurisdictions select names randomly from lists of citizens that other government agencies have already compiled: these lists notoriously underrepresent certain groups of people. Voter registration rolls systematically exclude Black residents who have been disenfranchised for decades. Relying on DMV registrations often leaves out low-income individuals who do not have driver’s licenses or other official documentation. Tax return databases exclude unemployed people from consideration. 

Even if a person’s name does appear on a particular jurisdiction’s list, if they do not have secure housing, their address may be out of date, and they may never receive their summons.

Gordon, the Minneapolis public defender, said that in his county, Hennepin County, the venire is selected from voter rolls and the lists of driver’s licenses and state IDs from the Department of Vehicle Services. 

“Those are the systemic barriers,” he said. “And even when folks do get a summons, there’s still significant problems within getting that person to respond.” 

Gordon described a conversation he had with the mother of one of his defendants. She asked him what the likelihood was that there would be any Black jurors in his trial — that her son would truly have a jury of his peers — and Gordon had to tell her that the chances were slim. 

“Even when you get a jury summons into the hands of an individual who is typically a person of color, is impoverished, is indigent, may have other stressors going on in their lives, those individuals,” the ones perhaps most representative of the defendant but underrepresented on the jury, “will often choose to ignore jury summons because of those stressors, and especially financial stress.” 

The mother admitted to him that she had not appeared for a jury summons herself when she could not afford to miss work.

“It was a choice between going to jury summons and getting $20 a day, or working and then paying the rent,” Gordon recalled her explaining. “And I sat across my table and looked at her and I said, ‘Well, that’s a choice that not just you make, right? That’s a choice that a lot of people are faced with if they get the jury summons.'”

And if, despite the countless obstacles, a person of color or low-income individual makes it into the courthouse, the chances are high that they will be sent immediately away by a peremptory strike.

*** 

In 2021, racial discrimination in jury selection remains as consequential as it was in 1986. In March, this issue was on full display in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. 

“What you have to know about the Chauvin jury selection is that it went exactly as one would have expected it to go,” said Gordon. “There was nothing strange about it. I think it highlighted very well the flaws inherent in the system.” 

All potential jurors filled out extensive questionnaires, a common practice in high-profile trials, and were then subject to in-person questioning. It was at this point that one potential juror, Juror No. 76, was removed from the venire by the defense.

Juror No. 76 was an African American man who lived in South Minneapolis, the neighborhood where Floyd was killed. He described to the courtroom how when Black men were arrested or killed in the city, police officers were known to ride through the neighborhood in their squad cars blasting “Another One Bites The Dust.” 

The recollection, said Gordon, was “reflective of how law enforcement treats Black people in his community.” 

Chauvin’s defense attorney Eric Nelson attempted to strike Juror No. 76 for cause, but his strike was denied by the judge. Nelson then successfully used a peremptory strike to remove the juror. 

“The court effectively, in removing him, was basically telling a majority of the population here, folks who live in South Minneapolis, folks who live in North Minneapolis, folks who look and talk like George Floyd, that your experiences make you biased, that you cannot be fair and impartial, that you would not be able to render justice in this case,” said Gordon. 

“I think the galling part for a lot of people is that we were being told that we were incapable of getting to justice because of our experiences with law enforcement,” he continued.

Gordon’s experience is consistent with that assertion that potential Black jurors are often removed from juries under Batson for “race neutral” reasons that are, in reality, intrinsically tied to their life experiences as people of color. A first step to holding lawyers and judges accountable for the appropriate use of peremptory strikes, Gordon argued, is strengthening the Batson rule. 

“We have to change our definition of race neutral,” he said.  “We have to understand that when a prosecutor or a defense attorney says they’re removing a Black person because they have particular experiences with law enforcement, it is not a race neutral reason, because those experiences were informed predominantly by the color of their skin, by their ethnicity, oftentimes by where they live.”

Gordon also discounted other classic examples of “race-neutral” accusations, such as living in high-crime neighborhoods, as similarly race-mediated. The fallacy of “race-neutral” points to the necessity of reevaluating legal standards.

“For a long time, we’ve thought that the way to achieve the best decision, the fair decision, the just decision, is to find people who are ‘fair and impartial,'” said Gordon. “There is now enough information about how groups actually make decisions that I think the gold standard should no longer be ‘fair and impartial.'” 

Rather, he said, the gold standard for the composition of juries should be one that prioritizes jurors’ ability to reach just conclusions, which derives from not excluding those with life experiences similar to the defendant’s own—not penalizing them for their life experiences. 

“We know groups make better decisions when those groups are comprised of diverse individuals. That’s what we should be aiming for,” asserted Gordon.

Peremptory strikes, even under Batson, allow the perspectives and experiences of Black citizens to be shut out of deliberations in trials that decide the futures of Black defendants and the standards for prosecution of Black defendants, claiming that these perspectives prevent impartiality. 

But if a nuanced understanding of the impact of systemic racism and the lived experience of people of color is considered biased, we must ask, of the legal system, of the judicial system, and of ourselves, as people who might one day comprise a jury or be judged by one: is impartiality actually desirable?