Wednesday, May 5, 2021

What We Can Learn About Systemic Racism in Jury Selection from the Chauvin Trial

By the time he was 32 years old, Philando Castile had been stopped by police 52 times. It was the 53rd time, when former officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled him over because he "looked like" someone involved in a robbery, that resulted in his death. 

But let's imagine for a moment that the 53rd incident hadn't happened. If Castile was alive when former police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd and, having that kind of direct experience with racial profiling, attended a protest, he would have likely been barred from serving on the jury that found Chauvin guilty.

That is what I thought about when I read the story of Brandon Mitchell, a 31-year-old high school basketball coach in Minneapolis, who served on the jury in Chauvin's case. This photo from prior to the trial recently surfaced on social media (Mitchell is the one on the right).

Mitchell says that the photo was taken last August at an an event commemorating Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech." But according to the Washington Post, experts are saying that it calls into question whether Mitchell could have served as an impartial juror. In other words, Black men who speak out against systemic racism in policing are disqualified from serving on a jury in a case of police brutality. 

Here is what potential jurors in the Chauvin trial were required to disclose:
As part of the jury selection, the candidates were required to fill out a 14-page questionnaire asking about a wide range of topics including race and policing, as well as education levels, professional experience, and hobbies, in order to gather in-depth knowledge about the candidates.

It also asked prospective jurors about information they had on Floyd, their opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement, and, more specifically, if they had attended protests or demonstrations against police brutality.

If Mitchell lied on that questionnaire, it could be grounds for an appeal. But the whole incident brings up a much deeper question. Black people can be excluded from serving on a jury simply for acknowledging that systemic racism exists and that their own lives matter. In other words, the law basically says that, when it comes to being an impartial juror, the experience of Black people is disqualifying. Jurors must view the world through the eyes of a white person. That is precisely what systemic racism looks like. It isn't simply embedded in policing, but permeates the entire justice system, including jury selection. 

Of course, this country has a long history of racism in jury selection. It was the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that was supposed to guarantee that Black people could serve on juries. It stated:

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.

Nevertheless, African Americans were regularly excluded from serving on juries because they were deemed to lack the education and intelligence that white people required. That is part of the system that unleashed the post-Civil War terror campaign against Black people.

“It really made lynching and the Ku Klux Klan possible,” said Christopher Waldrep, a historian at San Francisco State University and the author of a forthcoming book about a lawyer who was able, in a rare case, to prove jury discrimination in Mississippi in 1906. “If you’d had a lot of black grand jurors investigating crimes, it would have made lynching impossible.”

But a study by the Equal Justice Initiative completed in 2010 demonstrated that the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's didn't eliminate the practice of excluding Black jurors in the southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Here's what they found:

Racially biased use of peremptory strikes and illegal racial discrimination in jury selection remains widespread, particularly in serious criminal cases and capital cases. Hundreds of people of color called for jury service have been illegally excluded from juries after prosecutors asserted pretextual reasons to justify their removal.

Prosecutors have struck African Americans from jury service because they appeared to have “low intelligence,” wore eyeglasses, walked in a certain way, dyed their hair, and countless other reasons that the courts have rubber-stamped as “race-neutral.”

Some district attorney’s offices explicitly train prosecutors to exclude racial minorities from jury service and teach them how to mask racial bias to avoid a finding that anti-discrimination laws have been violated.
We could now be moving into an era when it is the very experience of African Americans with systemically biased law enforcement that is used as an excuse to disqualify them from serving on juries. As Mangy Jay noted on Twitter, that sets up "an endless loop of oppression."  


  1. What can I say? Eloquent, insightful, and maybe a little depressing for those of us without enough optimism to begin with.

    I haven't commented much, but thanks for what have been consistently provocative posts that contribute a lot. I'm still tempted to argue with a few, at risk of self-focus.

  2. yes, good looks like there may be "retribution" by some police around the country...

  3. Top-notch article.

    I can't imagine being excluded from a jury because I believed, for example, that embezzlement exists and is a problem when it happens. That's a far cry from believing that every white collar exec is a criminal, which would probably be enough to get me off a jury.


Conservative white men are allowed to call America sinful. Black preachers...not so much.

At about the same time that Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson was talking publicly about obstructing justice , he sent out a fundraising...