White Jury for Black Officer’s Killing Draws Scrutiny

A jury of 12 white men and women will decide whether or not to convict a white officer for killing an unarmed black man in the suburbs of Chicago. The lack of diversity on the jury has drawn scrutiny from those who believe that it reflects both implicit bias as well as a history of race relations in America.

On Monday, Nov. 23, after nearly a week of jury selection, the jurors were finalized and seated. The 12 jurors are made up of eight men and four women with one black male, two white females and three Hispanic females. Five people are unemployed at the moment while some work for non-profit organizations or as engineers. Two of the jurors have, or their family members have, been victims of violence.

The jury is made up of a cross-section of society and includes people from many different backgrounds. But beyond their ethnicity and profession, little else is known about the jury because the media has been blocked from reporting on any potential detail that might reveal who they are or how they might be thinking about this case.

What we do know, however, is the significance of what it means to have a non-diverse jury in such an obviously diverse country as America and how race plays a role in decision making. It may seem obvious that having a more racially representative jury would lead to a fairer trial but a growing body of research suggests that the role race plays in our lives is felt even when we are not aware of it.

It’s quite obvious that African Americans don’t experience anything like racial equality or justice in the United States, said Tom Tyler, a law professor at Yale University.

The legal system is not colorblind, and if you’re trying to do justice it’s important that the jury be representative of the community, he said. It’s really important for our perception of whether or not these decisions are legitimate.

Prejudice, implicit or otherwise, among jurors can come into play in different ways. A juror’s beliefs can influence how they perceive a case and how much weight is given to certain evidence. For instance, research shows that jurors tend to give more weight to eyewitness testimony than other types of evidence even though it has been shown that memory can be easily influenced by bias or leading questions.

Studies have also found that juries are more likely to convict those that they believe will commit future crimes and that jurors who view themselves as having high power tend to hold more racial bias than those with less power. For instance, a juror may tend to give less weight to evidence if they believe the defendant is guilty or can be dangerous in the future even though this is not the case.

It’s not clear whether any of these biases played a role in the jury selection process but the lack of diversity certainly begs the question about how such an all-white jury would view evidence or testimony.

The Chicago Police Department also has a history of racial tension and allegations by minorities that they are stopped more often than whites for no justifiable reason. The city of Chicago recently reached a $5 million settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union over what it called discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.

The U.S. Justice Department also found evidence of systemic civil rights violations in an investigation that began last year into several police departments, including those in Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson. A St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Wilson in that case, but the U.S. Justice Department is still investigating that incident for civil rights violations and whether it violated the teen’s constitutional rights.

CNN legal analyst Mel Robbins said what happened with the jury selection process suggests prosecutors didn’t think they could get a conviction from that jury.