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Race And Justice

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Few things have been more disheartening in my life than my one opportunity to serve on a jury in the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts.  You can read all about it here.  Very simply I watched the jury on which I served hang because while all available evidence pointed towards the guilt of the defendant, he was black and so was a majority of the jury.

So it was with great interest that I read a piece from the NYTimes over the weekend entitled “Exclusion of Blacks From Juries Raises Renewed Scrutiny.”  The most fascinating thing about the piece is that, like the jury on which I served, the evidence is not what matters. only race does.

Here is the money quote:

Reprieve Australia, a group that opposes the death penalty and conducted the Caddo Parish study, said the likelihood of an acquittal rose with the number of blacks on the jury.

No defendants were acquitted when two or fewer of the dozen jurors were black. When there were at least three black jurors, the acquittal rate was 12 percent. With five or more, the rate rose to 19 percent. Defendants in all three groups were overwhelmingly black.

A very interesting statistic, but what does it mean?  Does it mean that whites are “quick” to convict or does it mean that blacks are quick to acquit?  What about the tabs on the study?  To use this as evidence of racism should it also not be broken down by the race of the defendants in the cases in question?  Were there post verdict jury interviews?  What did the jury members cite as reasons for conviction or acquittal?  Oh yeah, and should not the real measure of the effect of race on juries be whether the verdict deviates from the evidence, not a simple count of verdicts?  One cannot assume that in the cases coming up for trial there is an actual random distribution of guilt and lack of guilt.

But guess what the author, Adam Liptak, says in the very next paragraph:

Excluding black jurors at a disproportionate rate does more than hurt defendants’ prospects….

WHOA!  Back up the truck here.  Should not a defendants “prospects” be based on the evidence?  What this entire article ignores is that the Prosecutors office itself, and in applicable cases the grand jury process, are filters meant to ensure that when a case comes before a jury there is already a high likelihood of guilt.

Simply put, there is no way to statistically judge the role of race in this situation.  Are their racial effects?  Unquestionably.  My own personal experience demonstrates that there were in at least one case.  But in order to do a meaningful study on this there must be an independent determination of the actual weight of the evidence in the case.  That is to say someone, or some group, has to decide whether the jury acted correctly in a case.  How do you do that without pretty much overturning everything we think dear in our criminal justice system?

And then additional data has to be collected about what race uses race as a determinant factor?  How do you gather such data?  Even if you try in post-verdict interviews, do you really think anyone is going to admit to it?

Mark Twain attributes to Disraeli the well worn quote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”  In this case, it is clear that statistics are being used to create the appearance of racism without actually measuring if there is any racism.


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