Our criminal justice system hinges on the constitutional right to a fair trial for everyone; however, the structure in which court proceedings take place does not always make for a level playing field, especially for Black Americans and other minorities. The influence of seemingly minute details of a jury panel have shown to be significant in respect to the verdict. This leads to a demand for more information on what “fair” looks like in the courtroom. The concept of a jury of one’s peers sounds like a simple criterion to meet, but for a Black individual having no more than one Black juror can influence the decision made by White jurors (Sommers, 2006). Whether consciously or unconsciously, race interacts not only with our perceptions of people but also our decision making.
In the article “Race, Witness Credibility, and Jury Deliberation in a Simulated Drug Trafficking Trial” Shaw, Lynch, Laguna, and Frenda (2021) empirically examine different ways that race impacts jurors. Participants in this study were 822 jury-eligible adults who were split into 144 juries of 4-7 individuals (59% women, 39% White). Researchers manipulated the race of the mock defendants and informant witnesses in the audio-visual materials presented to each jury. Each jury watched the materials, deliberated as a group, and then completed a 30 minute individual survey measuring perceptions of defendant and informant credibility and social attitudes. The researchers also explored how racial characteristics of both the individual juror and the group of jurors relate to their evaluation of the witness testimony as well as their verdicts.
The researchers hypothesized they would see a larger number of guilty verdicts in the conditions with a Black defendant, a White informant, and the same race between defendant/witness. It was also hypothesized that juror race would interact with the race of the defendant, where jurors would be more likely to acquit a same-race defendant. The findings actually contradicted the hypotheses; they found support for an unexpected race effect whereas White defendants received more guilty verdicts and White jurors were found to be significantly more conviction prone.
Despite not finding support for their initial hypotheses, it can be speculated that the results indicate that the racial diversity of the research participants aided in the group’s performance. Researchers found that the increased number of acquittals for Black defendants was correlated with a more diverse jury, giving credence to the argument for increased representation within a jury pool. The type of case used in this study cannot be overlooked; drug crimes are inherently racially biased in American society, and the results may differ when a different type of case is tried. More research is needed to investigate this phenomenon in hopes to ensure the right to due process for all.