Monday, July 30, 2007

Seeking Minority Jurors

An article by the Associated Press last week highlighted the problem of jurors failing to report for jury duty and the efforts some jurisdictions across the country are using to get more people to report. Although jury duty is a cornerstone of democracy and civic responsibility, many citizens would do almost anything to avoid it.

The AP article claimed fewer than half of all Americans summoned report for jury duty, in part, because of apathy and busy lifestyles. Interestingly, the article failed to mention the racial make-up of those not reporting. In my 17 year experience picking juries in Brazos County, Texas the most underrepresented members in the jury pool have been minority citizens. In fact, the minority citizens are those the criminal defense lawyer needs most to show up and participate in the jury process. It is the minority component of our community that is better equipped to give clients a fair trial in many cases.

Here's the problem. Most of the people who show for jury duty are civic minded, white middle class, law and order type citizens. As a general rule these people have little direct interaction with law enforcement and tend to believe the police. They tend to believe the government would never prosecute someone unless they knew they were guilty. Moreover, these law and order types tend to be less sympathetic to the accused at the punishment phase of trial. Conversely, minority citizens often harbor a very healthy distrust of the government and the police. A minority juror is less likely to believe a police officer's testimony than their white middle class counterpart.

The real challenge is to get more minority citizens to report for jury duty. Those citizens who are less well-to-do and out of the mainstream. Those who come from the wrong side of the tracks and who've had experience with the police making arrests in their own neighborhoods. These are the people with a healthy, and necessary, skepticism of law enforcement. These are the people who can better empathize with many of the criminally accused and give them a fair trial.

I was impressed with the methods judges were using in other states to get people to report for duty. However, I am skeptical elected judges in Texas would take the same aggressive approach. I'm afraid they may be more interested in keeping their voting constituency happy than they are about ensuring the accused a fair and impartial trial of their peers.

Consequently, when we come into contact with minority community leaders we must urge them to encourage their brethren to report for jury duty. Only then might we get a true cross-section of our community making decisions about the rest of our client's lives. Hopefully, then we'll be on the road to getting our clients a fair shake.

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