I recently concluded a trial on a civil rights case. Without discussing the details, it was a case that was in the New England area, where I found myself daily in a courthouse with hardly a sign of another person of color anywhere. One or two marshals, but no judges, no law clerks, no custodians and no clerical staff looked like me.
Mind you, this was in a federal courthouse, and the demographics where the trial took place were such that the city and its surrounding counties have a sizable population of blacks and Latinos. Yet it wasn’t until the fifth day of the trial that I happened to run into a friend from Washington, D.C., who is also an attorney and who happened to be traveling for business through that same courthouse.
Perhaps the national statistics should have made the absence of color among the legal staff obvious to me well before I even arrived. There are roughly 50,000 currently practicing black attorneys in the U.S. There are approximately 50,000 students who graduate from law school each year. That pretty much sums it up.
Still, there was one significant area where I found the whiteout most troubling and inexcusable: the jury pool. Out of 36 potential jurors brought up for selection, there were only three black people. What’s worse, at the first chance they could, each had a hardship excuse for why they could not serve jury duty. One was a single parent with child-care issues who was unable to pay to be away from the child. Another had a restraining order hearing in family court during the anticipated days of the trial. The third had at least four excuses that he couldn’t reconcile coherently with one another, but all of which displayed a strong desire simply to not be selected.
In the end, the jury I was left with was all white, with a disproportionate number of women over men. It reminded me of the myriad times I have gotten calls from friends who have received their notice about appearing for jury duty, and they’ve asked me, “How can I get out of it?”
Listen, I get it. Jury duty is akin to going to the dentist, and can be about as intrusive to one’s schedule. But at a time when our communities depend on the institutions that make up the criminal-justice system, including the courts, to provide some modicum of fairness, we cannot afford to be absent from the process. We have lamented the failure of some grand juries to indict police officers for killing innocent blacks and bemoaned what we feel are unfair verdicts in cases that have gone to trial. While this is understandable, we do ourselves a serious disservice by resisting our civic duty to serve on juries. The Constitution grants us the right to a speedy trial in front of a jury of our peers. If our peers don’t participate, however, how can we ensure fairness?
For anyone who is confused, the first step in serving on a jury is being part of a pool. Jury pools are selected at random through voter-registration information. So if you are a registered voter, you will likely receive a notice to report for jury duty at some point. (If you are over 18 and aren’t a registered voter, that is an entirely separate conversation.)
Once you show up for jury duty, if there is a trial beginning, you will be grouped randomly and sent to the court where the trial is to take place. At that point, the selection process involves a series of questions by the judge (and, sometimes, the attorneys) to determine whether you are an appropriate juror for a case. This is called voir dire.
These questions are not intended to pry into anything overly personal but, rather, to see if something about you or your background might expose a potential conflict or affect your ability to decide the case fairly without bias and based on the law. For example, if you come from a family full of police officers and the case is about potential police misconduct, it is likely that you will not be selected for that trial, but sent back to the jury pool for potential selection for another trial that poses less conflict.
The reality is that a diverse jury is simply invaluable to having this part of the criminal-justice system function appropriately. Folks interpret evidence placed before them within the context of their own experiences. If everyone on the jury has had a similar experience or is not challenged to consider a different alternative, things that seem like common sense to “us” suddenly become implausible, and vice versa.
Another example: If you and all those around you have never had a reason to be distrustful of police, then you are more likely to find police officers to be honest witnesses and to believe them, regardless of whether they are telling the truth. Likewise, you might assume that someone who admits running from the police is guilty of something or has something to hide, instead of considering the alternative perspective that this person simply ran because he or she was fearful of cops. Without our presence on juries and in these conversations, these important points and alternative views will often go unconsidered as part of deliberations.
Your jury notice isn’t going to come with a note attached telling you that it is for the most recent police-brutality case. Most people who serve end up becoming interested in the case they’re on, but there is a very fair chance that you will find yourself sitting for a less-than-titillating slip-and-fall trial. In either event, given that we pressure prosecutors’ offices to ensure that cases get to court, once they get there, it’s up to us to do our part and participate in the process. We simply have too much at stake to stay home.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights trial attorney, legal analyst and former Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutor. He is also a professor of criminal justice at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on Twitter.