Black Jury Candidates Tell of Bias

A new report detailing their systematic exclusion from southern juries is no surprise to them.

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melodieharris
Excluded potential juror Melodie Harris (Equal Justice Initiative)

Updated on June 6, 2010.

More than two decades after the fact, William David Minor learned what Selma, Ala., prosecutors had concocted to eliminate him as a juror in the 1986 trial of a black man charged with murder. "They said my father was guilty of illegal activity, selling corn whiskey, and that my uncle had been in some sort of trouble at one time. It was a bunch of crap," says Minor, 65, a veteran school principal to whom that prosecutorial conduct was revealed by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) roughly a year ago. EJI won a retrial last year for that 1986 defendant, Earl Jerome McGahee, who was convicted on two counts of capital murder by an all-white jury.

This week, the Montgomery, Ala.-based nonprofit released "Illegal Race Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy," which revealed the systematic exclusion of black jurors from Southern juries. Findings in the 61-page report were gleaned largely from jury selection transcripts and through interviews with prosecutors, excluded eligible jurors and others. They reflect what investigators say continue to be wide-ranging, race-driven infractions in jury selection throughout Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee.

The citations are emblematic of what EJI's founding director says are prosecutors run amok and neglect of a fundamental issue of civil rights. Training handbooks were developed on how prosecutors can exclude black jurors and cover up that practice.  Eligible jurors were dismissed for looking like they were of "low intelligence;" for "shucking and jiving;" being single, married, separated or interracially coupled; too old for jury duty at age 43 and too young at 28; and having relatives attending historically black colleges.

"As one [excluded] juror puts it in the report, this has got to stop.'" says director Bryan Stevenson, also a New York University law professor. "Under a fairer system there would be sanctions for these prosecutors who are doing this with impunity."

Black defendants in even overwhelmingly black counties throughout the eight states face all-white juries, Stevenson says, a trend rooted in de facto racism and attributable to some white prosecutors' presumption that black jurors would not be tough enough. "Excluded jurors are offended by the idea that they cannot be fair. A lot of them live where there is too much crime and violence. They support the police and law enforcement generally. They are equally capable of asking the questions and weighing the evidence," says Stevenson, a former MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" winner, whose justice project defends those on death row, the indigent and falsely accused.

Sometimes the measures taken to exclude black jurors defy logic. Melodie Harris, 42, had resided for a decade in Tupelo, Miss., enrolled her children in local schools and clocked seven years on the payroll of the same factory when, as a registered voter, she was tapped to be screened as a possible juror in the trial of a black man who had been chased and assaulted by a white man following a traffic altercation. "They said I had no ties to the community, and that another gentleman, a black man, had a child out of wedlock, which is no criteria. You have to be 18 and a citizen," says Harris, a senior finance major at the University of Mississippi, where the youngest two of her five children are also enrolled.

"How can this be? Oh, my God, it's what it is," Harris says. "I've been in Lee County, Mississippi, 22 years, and there's a lot like this that's going on, a lot that's been going on for a long time."

As a next step, Stevenson says his organization will petition the U.S. Justice Department to probe illegal exclusions by prosecutors, develop sanctions for offending prosecutors and a national overhaul of jury selection. This is not just a Southern concern, he adds. The report cites protests in cities including New York, Los Angeles and Milwaukee, which erupted in recent years over what some considered to racially biased verdicts by juries where blacks were underrepresented or not represented at all.

The report also notes recent judicial reversals in several southern states of convictions by all-white juries. The federal judge who ruled that Alabaman McGahee should be retried noted, according to the report, the "astonishing pattern" of racial exclusion during jury selection, including the prosecutor's dismissal of all 24 blacks in that pool after mainly asking them to respond to questions by signaling with their hands, and then calling them unintelligent.