#barriers2innocence: All-White Juries

This post is part of the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign. As an innocence organization, we work to combat systemic racism because we know that there are numerous barriers between Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and justice that exist solely because of racism. This campaign aims to highlight some of those barriers. Today’s topic is all-White juries:

We know there is a possibility for racial bias to exist when BIPOC are pursued as defendants: when the accusation is made, during interactions with law enforcement, when the case is being built, etc. The last safeguard before racial bias turns into a wrongful conviction is an impartial jury. The 6th and 14th amendments grant you the right to a speedy, public trial by an impartial jury of your peers, but these rights are often reserved for White people.

The Scottsboro Boys

It was only 85 years ago that the Supreme Court decided that the systemic exclusion of Black people on juries denies fair trials. This was decided in relation to the wrongful convictions of the Scottsboro Boys.

In 1932, nine Black boys were falsely accused of raping two White women on a train near Scottsboro, Alabama. All of the boys were granted new trials and retried several times based on Constitutional violations. The continual systemic racism, including the fact that the boys were repeatedly wrongfully convicted by all-White juries, was so apparent that support grew for their innocence.

Two Supreme Court decisions were made in regards to the Scottsboro Boys, but it was Norris v. Alabama that cemented the right to a racially diverse jury for non-White defendants.

“Exclusion of all negroes from a grand jury by which a negro is indicted, or from the petit jury by which he is tried for the offense, resulting from systematic and arbitrary exclusion of negroes from the jury lists solely because of their race or color, is a denial of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed to him by the Fourteenth Amendment,” states the court’s opinion.

Watch Carol Anderson, Associate Professor of African American Studies at Emory University, detail the impact of the Scottsboro case:

Despite the decisions that came out of the Scottsboro case, all-White juries continue to be a legal barrier for BIPOC. You may recall Bob Dylan’s 1975 song “Hurricane,” where he sings the line, “the DA said he was the one who did the deed, and the all-White jury agreed.” This song tells the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and his wrongful conviction by an all-White jury.

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

In 1966, Carter was a famed boxer from Patterson, New Jersey, who was preparing for his shot at the world middleweight title. On June 17 of that year, there was a triple homicide at the Lafayette Bar & Grill in Paterson. Carter and his friend John Artis were at a different bar in town. An eyewitness described the assailants as two Black men driving a white car. Carter and Artis were arrested on their way home that night because they were driving a white car.

A grand jury failed to indict Carter and Artis because the only surviving witness testified that they were not the men who committed the crime. However, the state later took Carter and Artis to trial based on positive eye-witness identifications by Alfred Bello and Arthur D. Bradley and a new theory of the crime. The theory centered around race retaliation; according to the prosecution, Carter and Artis killed the three people at the White-owned bar because a Black tavern owner in town was killed earlier that night.

The theory lacked merit, and their eyewitnesses lacked credibility. Bello and Bradly were both burglars who received reduced sentences for testifying against Carter and Artis, and it was later revealed that the state paid them to testify. Based on this evidence alone, Carter and Artis were convicted by an all-White jury.

In 1974, Bello and Bradley recanted and admitted that they testified to receive leniency for their burglary charges. The New Jersey State Supreme Court overturned both men’s convictions, but they were only free for six months before Bello recanted his recantation, and the state convicted Carter and Artis again.

Artis was offered a deal if he testified against Carter; Artis refused and was released in 1976 for good behavior. Carter, who often refused to speak with prison guards, eat prison food, or wear prison-issued clothes in protest of his wrongful conviction, was not considered to have good behavior but was still freed before the end of his sentence.

“The extensive record clearly demonstrates that petitioners’ convictions were predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure,” U.S. District Court Judge H. Lee Sarokin stated in his decision.

Carter’s story inspired Dylan’s song and the 1999 film “The Hurricane” starring Denzel Washington. 

Are all-White juries incapable of being impartial to BIPOC defendants?

Patrick Bayer, an economist and social scientist, released the results of his 10-year-long study in 2012, confirming that all-White juries have an immense impact on convictions. The study compared conviction rates from all-White juries with conviction rates from juries with at least one Black member. All-White juries convicted Black defendants 16 percent more often than White defendants, but when at least one Black person was on the jury, conviction rates for Black and White defendants were nearly identical.

How common are all-White juries in Montana?

According to Robin Hammond, a former prosecutor and a current public defender with the Montana State Office of the Public Defender, not only is it incredibly difficult to get a racially diverse jury in a state like Montana, but all-White juries are commonplace in our state’s courtrooms.

Hear our interview with Hammond below:

How common are all-White juries in Montana? And are all-White juries capable of being impartial?

Why is an impartial jury so important?

How do all-White juries make BIPOC more susceptible to wrongful convictions?

Action Steps:

  1. If you are a White person reading this and thinking to yourself that because you are anti-racist, you are capable of being impartial to a BIPOC defendant, click here to learn about implicit bias.
  2. Watch a jury selection process. Trials are open to the public, and the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that jury selections are part of a defendant’s right to a public trial.

Thank you for participating in the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign. Tomorrow’s topic is cash bail.