Does Race Matter in Criminal Trials? Yep.
Have you ever heard about the Blomberg trial out of Houston?
The case involved Andrew Blomberg– one of four ex-Houston Police Officers– who was charged with official oppression for allegedly beating a then-15-year-old suspect (Chad Holley) in 2010. It was all caught on videotape. Blomberg, the first of the four officers to be tried, was facing up to one year in prison. Opening Statements were heard May 3, 2012, and on May 16th the jury rendered its verdict. Not guilty. The result? A lot of unhappy folks in the Houston community.
The defendant was Caucasian.
The victim was African American.
And all six of the jurors were Caucasian.
According to local news reports, community leaders claim “they have lost confidence in the justice system” and that “there was never a chance of conviction because all of the jurors were white.” Dick DeGeurin, Blomberg’s attorney, stated “we both wanted to get a fair jury…I would have loved to have had minorities that could be fair, just to deflect this kind of criticism.” DeGeurin also commented that “most of the African Americans on the jury panel had already made up their minds.”
So… what about race? Does it matter?
According to a recent study by Duke University– “The Impact of Jury Race in Criminal Trials”— published last year in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, it most certainly does. But maybe not in the way you might expect.
The study investigated the impact of the racial composition of juries on criminal trial outcomes. Researchers analyzed age, race and gender of both the jury pools and the seated jurors from more than 750 criminal trials in two Florida counties. Researchers also examined the defendant’s race, gender and pending criminal charges.
The findings may give you pause.
The composition of the jury pool matters.
- In cases where no blacks were in the jury pool, black defendants were convicted 81% of the time whereas white defendants were convicted 66% of the time.
- Having as few as 2 blacks in the jury pool results in increased conviction rates for whites and decreased conviction rates for blacks.
- The black-white conviction gap declines by about 16% when there is at least one black in the jury pool.
Having an increased number of blacks in the jury pool can affect trial outcomes even if no blacks are seated as actual jurors.
- The voir dire process is altered when the composition of the jury pool contains a greater number of blacks.
- Attorneys may have a greater number of dangerous jurors than available peremptory strikes, thus increasing the likelihood of seated a juror who holds the same view as the excused juror.
- This holds true for jurors who are sworn in and deliberate to a verdict, as well as jurors who participate in the voir dire process and are ultimately excused.
…conviction rates for black and white defendants are similar when there is at least some representation of blacks in the jury pool, but in the absence of such representation, black defendants are substantially more likely to be convicted.
Does this research suggest that trials are unjust when the defendant’s race is not shared by members of the jury pool or on the actual panel? Perhaps. Does it apply to the Bromberg case? Maybe, maybe not. The research in this study only focused on the race of jurors and criminal defendants. Had it also investigated the race of jurors and the victim, we’d have a better answer. For now, we can only speculate.
No matter what the research suggests, let’s not forget the dynamics that can’t be tested or measured in a situation like this: the life experiences and belief systems that each juror brings to the courtroom, the credibility of witnesses, the advocacy skills of trial counsel, the court’s rulings, and above all? The strength of the evidence and how it was perceived by the jury panel. Make no mistake: these things matter. A lot.
It’s easy to point fingers when outcomes are not what we’d like. Sure, every attorney would like to seat a jury panel with jurors who share a commonality with his client–including but not limited to race– but sometimes the jury pool doesn’t provide that opportunity. So at the end of the day? We have to trust selected jurors to evaluate the evidence presented and render a verdict based on the jury charge.
Let’s not lose faith in our juries.