An all-white jury is a sworn body composed only of white people convened to render an impartial verdict in a legal proceeding. Juries composed solely of one racial group are not prohibited in the United States. However, the phrases “all-white jury” and “all-black jury”‘ may raise the expectation that deliberations may be less than fair. While the racial composition of juries is not dictated by law, racial discrimination in the selection of jurors (regardless of the jury’s ultimate composition) is specifically prohibited. Racial discrimination in jury selection has a long history in the United States.
Current precedent and legal challenges
Under the legal standard set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Strauder v. West Virginia and Batson v. Kentucky, the striking of a juror on account of race denies a defendant equal protection under the constitution. However the court held that a defendant is not entitled to a jury containing or lacking members of any particular race, and the striking of jurors for race-neutral reasons is permissible. This standard has been extended to civil trials in Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Company and on the basis of gender in J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T.B.
Following the American Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution had abolished slavery and guaranteed basic civil rights to African-Americans; the Civil Rights Act of 1875 extended this to “public accommodation” and jury selection, including the establishment of criminal penalties for court officers who interfered:
Sec 4. That no citizen possessing all other qualification which are or may be prescribed by law shall be disqualified for service as grand or petit juror in any court of the United States, or of any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude; and any officer or other person charged with any duty in the selection or summoning of jurors who shall exclude or fail to summon any citizen for the cause aforesaid shall, on conviction thereof, be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and be fined not more than five thousand dollars.
The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1880 in Strauder v. West Virginia that laws excluding blacks from jury service violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment; yet in Virginia v. Rives (1879), the court denied an appeal from a black defendant who asked that black jurors be made at least one third of his jury, noting that an all-white jury was not in itself proof that a defendant’s rights had been violated. Nevertheless, Southern states easily evaded Strauder and set up other ways than explicit legal bans to exclude black Americans from jury service.
In 1883, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was overturned entirely by the Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision. In 1896, the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision enshrined the unofficial civil code termed Jim Crow, ranging from separate but equal accommodation to voter disenfranchisement and jury exclusion; blacks were thus denied access to the public, political, and judicial spheres.
In the 1931 case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths were accused of raping two white women, one of whom later recanted her testimony. Eight of the defendants were sentenced to death (although none would be executed). Defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz argued before the Alabama Supreme Court that blacks had been kept off the jury rolls, and that names of blacks had been added to the rolls after the trial to conceal this fact. The appeals in the case ultimately led to two landmark Supreme Court decisions. In Powell v. Alabama (1935), the Court ruled that criminal defendants are entitled to effective counsel, and in Norris v. Alabama (1935), that blacks may not be excluded systematically from jury service.
Despite Norris, the practice of excluding blacks from juries did not disappear. In 1985, the Supreme Court in Batson v. Kentucky addressed a situation where a prosecutor had used his peremptory challenges to strike all four blacks from a jury and obtained a conviction against the black defendant. The defendant was not able to demonstrate that the state’s court system systematically excluded blacks from juries but nonetheless raised due process and equal protection arguments in his particular case. In Batson, the court ruled that the defendant could make a prima facie case for purposeful racial discrimination in jury selection by relying on the record and that a State denies a defendant equal protection in a trial before a jury from which members of his race have been purposely excluded.
Batson did not eliminate the exclusion of blacks from juries. Batson applied only in criminal trials, only to prosecutors, and only in situations where the challenged juror and the defendant were of the same race. The Mississippi Supreme Court noted, in reversing a 2004 murder conviction of a black man, where prosecutors used all 15 of their peremptory strikes to exclude black jurors: “racially motivated jury selection is still prevalent 20 years after Batson.” In 2010, a white man in Alabama appealed his murder conviction and death sentence after a trial by 11 whites and 1 black, stating that jury selection was tainted by racial discrimination in excluding additional blacks from his jury.
- Dobbs, David. “The all-white jury v the diverse: Evidence, for a change”. Scientific American. Retrieved 2007-08-21.
In the long, messy experiment that is the trial by jury, one of the most volatile and closely attended variables in the United States is a jury’s racial make-up. Depending on context, the phrases “all-white jury” or “all-black jury” can raise a host of expectations — among them, as MIT social neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe notes below, the expectation that deliberations may be less than fair. The 1995 acquittal of O.J. Simpson of murder charges by a jury of nine blacks, one Hispanic, and two whites, for instance, was widely seen as skewed by race, as was the 1992 acquittal by a mostly white jury of the police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King the year before.
- Equal Justice Initiative (June 2010). “Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy”. Equal Justice Initiative. p. 10. Archived from the original on 5 June 2010. Retrieved 2010-06-11.
- Tsahai Tafari. “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: A National Struggle: Important Supreme Court cases in the battle for civil rights”. PBS. Retrieved 2007-09-25.
- “Civil Rights Act of 1875, 18 Stat. Part III, p. 335 (Act of Mar. 1, 1875)”. The University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Archived from the original on 2007-05-20. Retrieved 2007-09-25.
- Wiecek, William M. (2005). “Strauder v. West Virginia”. In Hall, Kermit L.; Ely, Jr., James W.; Grossman, Joel B. (eds.). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (2d ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 985–986. ISBN 978-0-19-517661-2.
- “Scottsboro Timeline”. The American Experience. PBS. Retrieved 2007-09-25.
- “Scottsboro Trials Collection, 1931-1937”. Cornell University Library. Retrieved 2013-05-28.
- Browne-Marshall, Gloria (2007). Race, law, and American society : 1607 to present. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. ISBN 978-0-415-95294-1. Retrieved 2009-08-31.
- Sperlich, Peter W. (2005). “Batson v. Kentucky”. In Hall, Kermit L.; Ely, Jr., James W.; Grossman, Joel B. (eds.). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (2d ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-19-517661-2.
- Dewan, Shaila (2010-06-02). “Study Finds Blacks Blocked From Southern Juries”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-06-02.