The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lays down the principle of a trial by a jury of your peers. This doesn't mean that jurors have to be just like you; rather, they should be representative of the community in which the crime was committed. Over the years the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this largely means that jury pools should have roughly the same proportions of persons by race/ethnicity as does the community from which jurors can be drawn (adult citizens, in general, with some states adding residency or other requirements). Over the years I have been involved as an expert witness in more than 100 murder cases--mostly in California--in which the demographics of the jury pool have been challenged. Sometimes we have found that there are problems, and sometimes not. Sometimes when there are problems, the Court seeks to fix them, sometimes not.
One of the items that is never on the table in the cases in which I have been involved, however, is the demographic makeup of the people who are actually selected for the jury. The Supreme Court's rulings have focused on the pool of people available to sit on the jury--not the final group selected for trial. However, as a lengthy story in the NYTimes points out, the constitutional ability of attorneys for either side in a case to use a certain number of peremptory challenges of jurors means that the demographics of the jury may in fact wind up being skewed. Indeed, in several southern states, there is evidence that peremptory challenges are being used by prosecutors to lower the number of blacks who serve on juries. The Supreme Court has ruled that there cannot be racial bias in peremptory challenges, but it appears that the Court has a lot of tolerance for "stupid" reasons that sidestep racial issues.
In Louisiana’s Caddo Parish, where Shreveport is the parish seat, a study to be released Monday [today] has found that prosecutors used peremptory challenges three times as often to strike black potential jurors as others during the last decade.
That is consistent with patterns researchers found earlier in Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina, where prosecutors struck black jurors at double or triple the rates of others.
In Georgia, prosecutors excluded every black prospective juror in a death penalty case against a black defendant, which the Supreme Court has agreed to review this fall.
“If you repeatedly see all-white juries convict African-Americans, what does that do to public confidence in the criminal justice system?” asked Elisabeth A. Semel, the director of the death penalty clinic at the law school at the University of California, Berkeley [and a person with whom I have worked].This is just a reminder that we have to continue our vigilance (to quote Jon Stewart on the last day of "The Daily Show") if we are to somehow, sometime, rid ourselves of racial/ethnic bias.
By the way, the article references a North Carolina judge who has been active in dealing with these cases. His name is Greg Weeks, but he is not the same Greg Weeks of North Carolina who is my son, although I'm sure the two men share the same perspective on this issue.