A Good Idea Of The American Jury System And Its Influence On Black Communities

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African Americans are considered a minority group in the American population, yet, they have a “higher rate of criminal behaviour and incarceration than the majority group, European Americans.” (Gibbons, F. X. et al., 2019) A factor that contributes to this, in a paper by Whitesel (2017), according to Patricia Williams, a critical race feminist, is society’s “unwillingness to acknowledge the ongoing legacy of slavery and devaluation of African Americans as a group” (Williams, 1987) The African American youth “are aware of their racial status as early as age 6 or 7 and have reported discriminatory experiences by age 9.” (Gibbons, F. X. et al, 2019) This enforces the fact that African American children grow up feeling like outcasts to their society and from a young age, they are made to feel more inferior than their white counterparts. Such an environment affects younger children immensely as “younger children may be especially vulnerable to the effects of racial discrimination, because they may not understand the source of harsh or negative behaviours from others or the effects on their parents.” (Gibbons, F. X. et al, 2019) Growing up with such constant belittling and unexplained hate undoubtedly pushes some of the children, when older, to resort to alternative methods to succeed in the “white man’s world’ leading them ‘down a path of unwanted involvement with the criminal justice system.” (Gibbons, F. X. et al, 2019) The legal system in America has always been biased when it comes to the punishment of crimes committed by African Americans; this trend seemed to escalate following the one and a half centuries after the abolishment of slavery in America. In reference to the types of crimes committed by the offenders, from a paper by F. X. Gibbons et al (2019), It showed “a pattern of arresting Blacks more frequently than Whites under similar circumstances” (Kochel et al., 2011) but, “after arrest, they are more likely to be incarcerated” (Starr & Rehavi, 2013 as cited by Gibbons, F. X. et al, 2019), and “for longer periods of time, when controlling for type of crime.” (Mustard, 2001; Spohn, 2013 as cited by Gibbons, F. X. et al, 2019) This discrimination has been brought to light by the use of social media and has revealed the prejudice in the judicial system from the officers who make the arrest to the judges who hand out the sentences. This paper aims to show the implicit racism and prejudice in the American legal system specifically in the police officers, jury residing in the court as well as the discrimination’s effect on the African American youth of today.

The relationship between the police and African Americans has historically been strained but in recent years, the relationship has changed from a fear of imprisonment to a fear of death. Recently, it has been “reported that Black adolescents have more trouble with the police than do adolescents of other minority groups when controlling for multiple factors that usually predict such troubles.” (Unnever et al, 2019 as cited in F. X. Gibbons et al., 2019).

In the judicial system, the police are the first barrier to pass as they are responsible for arresting criminals and making sure that the law is being followed. Unfortunately, this first barrier is the most feared by African Americans due to the recent killings of innocent black people, which has increased in number, as “extra-judicial killing of Black people in the United States by police, security guards, or vigilantes occurs once every 28 h.” (Akuna & Eisen, 2013 as cited in Nordberg et al, 2017) Studies have analyzed factors associated with the shooting of black people by police namely weapon misidentification and shooter bias. Weapon misidentification was the cause of many deaths by police with the officers claiming that they mistook, for example, a wallet for a gun. The concept is associated with the fact that “non-Black participants were faster to identify guns when they were primed by Black versus White faces” due to the ‘black criminal stereotype’ (Payne, 2001) Shooter bias is also a factor as internal feelings of racism can influence the reaction of the shooter. This was associated with the fact that “The presence of Black faces made participants more likely to misidentify a hand tool as a handgun, compared to the presence of a White face.” (Payne, 2001)

The reason for this is a concept called stereotype accessibility, specifically, “the stereotype that links Blacks with criminality—appears to be the key driver of the effect.” (Correll et al., 2002; Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2007) This concept shows that the correlation between how one perceives someone, and their race is real and can be present in normal civilians as well as police officers. In reference to arrests, the situation is the same for black offenders such that “Blacks are more likely to be jailed after arrest. This is especially true for low-level crimes, such as drug trafficking and assault, suggesting that discrimination may also play a role in sentencing after arrest.” (Whitesel, J. 2017) This situation affects the view of police officers by Black youth especially in Black neighbourhoods expressed that “racial prejudice was evident in youth police encounters” (Gau & Brunson, 2010, p. 270). When compared to white offenders, they are not jailed or imprisoned for as long as their black counterparts. This leads to many more African Americans being in the system and spending years in prison for a crime that was not as major or that they didn’t commit which only serves to increase the fear of the police in Black communities.

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“In criminal law, jurors are supposed to ignore defendant race when considering factual matters of culpability.” (McManus et al, 2018) Therefore, the fate of many fall on the shoulders of the randomly selected jury, members of their community, usually composed of individuals of different races, genders, SES backgrounds, ages and so on. This diversity was justified by the comparison in how all white juries vs diverse juries deliberate a case as “diverse (vs. all-White) juries judging a minority defendant discuss more case facts, produce fewer factual inaccuracies, and are more likely to correct inaccurate statements, all indicators of increased effort and motivation to reach a fair verdict.” (Sommers, 2006)

With that finding being common knowledge nowadays, the push for more diverse jury selections has been receiving a lot of attention. “Over the past 40 years, legislative reforms to jury selection have helped increase representation of racial and ethnic minorities on American juries” but unfortunately, this has not changed jury composition much due to the fact that “White jurors still constitute a disproportional majority on most U.S. juries, because jury selection relies primarily on voter registration lists where minorities are underrepresented.” (Sommers, 2016) With the jury being randomly selected and their removal from the trail dependent on what they will or will not reveal to the court before the proceedings, deception within the jury is inevitable. The deception in reference to perceptions of race is often not revealed before the trial to avoid being socially castrated. Unfortunately, this hidden factor does affect how a juror would perceive a criminal/case as “racial stereotypes are known to affect quick decision making in speeded response paradigms wherein people do not have the opportunity to contemplate their decision but rather make an automatic/reflective response indicative of heuristic processing.” (Correll, Urland, & Ito, 2006 as cited in McManus et al, 2018) This can lead to the jury ultimately deciding the fate of a man or woman solely on the defendant’s race. As a result, “jurors may process trial information in a manner that supports harsher judgments of Black defendants. For example, Hodson et al. (2005) found that “White mock jurors were influenced by incriminating but inadmissible DNA evidence when the defendant was portrayed as Black, but not when he was portrayed as White.” ( Hodson et al., 2005 as cited in Hunt, 2015) With their fate and their overall sentence in the balance, Black defendants often resort to character witnesses; these are witnesses to the defendant’s character and are brought in to show the jury whom the accused really or speak to their possible inability to commit the crime they are accused of. This factor, however, can also be influenced by race as a study by Abshire and Bornstein found that the “constellation of findings suggests that Black individuals view defense witnesses more favourably, but prosecution witnesses less favourably, than do White individuals.” and “White mock jurors would render more guilty verdicts than Black mock jurors” in a murder trial involving a black defendant. (Ashbire & Bornstein, 2003) Most black defendants on trial, especially from a predominantly black community, are bound to bring in a black character witness which would possibly hurt their case rather than save it. With the possibility of prejudice in the jury, it’s no wonder why innocent Black men have spent several years of their lives behind bars for either minimal crimes or crimes they did not commit. As prejudice within juries becomes more publicized, the perception of the justice system by African American communities has seen a decline over the years.

In recent years, with racial prejudice becoming more prevalent in the judicial system, with an emphasis on police officer misconduct, Black communities have begun to rise above and protest the maltreatment of their people introducing the movement ‘Black lives matter’. Though opposed by several of their white counterparts, this movement has spread all over the world and aims to showcase and bring to light the issues of police killings, wrongful imprisonment and so on in the form of protests or using online platforms such as Instagram. A study conducted by Goff et al., (2015) revealed that “over 19,000 recent encounters found that police use physical force against Blacks about 3.5 times more than against Whites.” (Goff et al., 2015 as cited in Leach 2017) This statistic was not as widely known or a concern to many until one killing after another happened in a short period of time triggering global outrage and igniting protests nationwide. A case was presented in a paper by Cobb (2016) stating that “Black Lives Matter didn’t reach a wider public until the following summer, when a police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson” (Cobb, 2016)

Social media has been a big part of this movement with the viral sharing of videos consisting of the family of the deceased or even the deceased’s last moments leading up to their death. The viral tendency of the videos is because “recent research also suggests that shared exposure to emotionally moving images on social or traditional media can increase protest.” (Leach, 2017) The BLM movement has taken a life of its own and has pressured police officers to be held accountable for their actions of violence as well as reforms to decrease the effect of jury bias in cases against black men and women, as, stated in a paper by Cobb (2016), “Black Lives Matter is a presence in the streets, in the town halls, and on campuses across the country.” (Cobb, 2016)

With the prejudice associated with the police and jury, the black lives matter movement was inevitable. Nowadays, the rights of black people in the streets, their neighbourhoods, their homes and the innocent people still in prison, due to prejudice in the courtroom, are being violated every day and that has intensified the fight for equal rights for African Americans nationwide. A limitation of this paper was the inability to cover the issue of racial prejudice in judges. This is because several judges decline the request to participate in studies that have to do with bias and prejudice so the number of recent publications having to do with this topic was very minimal. According to a paper by Burtt (1931) , he hypothesized that a judge “may have his individual attitudes or prejudices just like any of us, and, while he may make a sincere effort to be unbiased, a deeply rooted prejudice may still function; or, if he is aware of it and tries to compensate, he may actually lean over backward in the effort. Race prejudice is a case in point.” (Burtt, 1931) This hypothesis cannot be proven but it gives an idea of what to expect and why judges avoid participating in studies due to the fear of being disbarred or ruining their careers. As the black lives matter movement becomes more popular globally, the racism in the judicial system should become a thing of the past in the years to come.

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