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Jury Sunshine Project Finds White Men Convict, Black Men Acquit

United Artists
Library of Congress
Directed by Sidney Lumet for Orion-Nova Productions in 1957, the dramatic film 12 Angry Men follows the deliberations of an American jury as they weigh whether to convict a teen on the basis of reasonable doubt.

If you’re a registered voter or have a driver’s license, odds are, you’re eligible for jury duty. But just because you’re called, doesn’t mean you’ll serve.

Research from the Jury Sunshine Project in North Carolina shows that some people get dismissed from the jury pool a lot more often than others.

On this week’s episode of 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, University of Pittsburgh law professor and show host David Harris talked to Wake Forest School of Law professor Ron Wright, who’s finding those exclusions make a big difference in the outcome of some cases.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: When potential jurors get summoned to the courthouse, they face two levels of scrutiny in court. Can you explain that for us?

RON WRIGHT: The judge excludes jurors for cause, that is the judge ask questions of the possible jurors and says, "Can you be a fair judge of the case of the facts in this case?" And he might find out, "Oh, your cousin is one of the lawyers or you are neighbors with one of the key witnesses." Or, you know, there just may be some reason why the juror can't listen fairly to the evidence and reach an objective conclusion. So the judge excludes for cause and the attorneys get to decide whether they want these people based on just any reason or no reason at all.

HARRIS: To get some transparency on the question of who actually gets to serve on juries, you and some colleagues start the Jury Sunshine Project. It's a database with information about the people who are ultimately chosen to serve and the people who are excluded. And that's from every county in North Carolina for one year – 2011. What does the database tell you?

WRIGHT: Well, what we've got in it is about 1,400 trials. And that means about 30,000 jurors and we can tell from this information drawn from paper records – paper files in the clerk's office – which party removed jurors and which jurors got to serve and we know a few things demographically about each of the jurors who are excluded or serving.

HARRIS: So what are you able to tell from the data? What patterns have you noticed?

WRIGHT: Well, for one thing, there are patterns based on race. So prosecutors do tend to remove black jurors at a higher rate than they remove white jurors. Conversely, defense attorneys remove white jurors at a higher rate than they remove black jurors. And there is some difference in the performance of those juries, that a jury with more white males on it is more likely to convict a defendant and a jury with more black males on it is more likely to acquit a defendant.

HARRIS: That pattern really does stand out. Tell us why that would matter.

WRIGHT: Well, I think it matters because jury service is both a right of the defendant; the defendant has a right to a jury trial. But jury service is an important part of community participation in criminal justice. So if we have chunks of the community different places in the city or in the county where people are routinely getting less jury service, that means that they're less connected to the system (and) less willing to accept it as legitimate. It is a system problem if you don't have everybody with equal access to jury service.

HARRIS: Now, you've said 30,000 juror records are contained in your database. That's a heck of a lot of records. How did you get access to all of that data. What was the system that you put together to do that?

WRIGHT: Well, the challenge here is that this data exists on pieces of paper in 100 different offices of the clerks of the court scattered all over the state. So we got a team of, you know, close to 100 volunteers, some law students, some college students, and my favorite, some librarians who are all about open access to data and they took road trips for data, they got in their cars and drove all over the state and showed up at the clerk's office and said you show us the files for the trial so we can take notes.

HARRIS: So, what would you like to find out in the next phase of your project?

WRIGHT: Well, the next phase will involve a 2016. So "five years later" snapshot of North Carolina. I'm going to find out (whether) things change over time; we'll just keep taking the snapshots every five years. And I also want to know, do things change from place to place? So we're starting to collect data from Minnesota, and we would love to go to other states. I'd like to know is this something that is specific to North Carolina or is this something that you see pretty much everywhere?

Hear more from Ron Wright about the effect of race on jury selection on this week’s episode of WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on iTunes and though your favorite podcast app.