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Posted by on Aug 25, 2007 in Science & Technology | 6 comments

Do Racially Diverse Juries Perform Better?

A recent study by Tufts University’s Samuel Sommers concludes that yes, they do–and that the performance boost is shared by both White and Black jurors.

Heterogeneous juries outperformed their homogeneous peers on a variety of different metrics, including time spent deliberating, number of facts considered, number of factual inaccuracies stated, number of stated factual inaccuracies corrected, and willingness to entertain discussion of the possible impact of racism. You can read the study itself here

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  • willingness to entertain discussion of the possible impact of racism

    This seems a potentially troubling indicator of “quality”. I mean, just because society is racist (or even a specific cop is racist) doesn’t remove individual guilt for a specific crime, right?

    Racism in society should not become a reason for jury nullification. That way lies a particularly brutal variant of anarchy.

  • Well first of all, that was only one of several performance indicators listed (the study measured eight in total, five of which were race-free, three of which related to discussing racism). If heterogeneous juries only outperformed on the race-related ones, then that would be one thing, but they outperformed on all eight, so the broad conclusion holds. More importantly, surely you agree that it is qualitatively better to at least discuss the possible influence of racism in a criminal case than to ignore it, right? That’s a simple affirmation that juries should examine all potentially relevant facets of a criminal trial (its neutral to the outcome of such discussions). A quality jury does that (on race as much as any other potentially salient considerations). Willingness to discuss is all the three race-metrics were measuring: the number of times race was raised (beyond bare descriptors), the number of times “racism” was discussed, and the percentage of times that even discussing the possibility racism was objected to.

  • surely you agree that it is qualitatively better to at least discuss the possible influence of racism in a criminal case than to ignore it, right?

    It depends. If racism relates to the possible guilt or innocence of the accused, then yes, I agree. If racism is invoked instead as a form of an affirmative defense (i.e. “yes, he did it, but the racist system made him do it”) then I think that would be a very negative use of racism that should not be considered by the jury.

    So all I am saying is that consideration of racism is not automatically an indicator of jury quality.

  • Based on how the study presented it, I don’t think the latter case is what they’re talking about (but I’m not sure; see the discussion at 607-608 and draw for yourself). Even if it is though, that actually could be relevant in determining degrees of culpability, which juries are often called upon to decide. And finally, I still think that generally it is generally better to discuss things than to not discuss things, so I’d say it’s still probably better for juries to mention even a rather “shady” racism issue (and then shoot it down) then to not bring it up in the first place (but even if you don’t agree, I’d say that definitely if the risk of bringing up “bad” racism claims is outweighed by all the other performance benefits raised in the study). In all then, I’d say the concern you raise, to the degree it’s even present, is pretty attenuated and rather marginal in light of the totality of Sommers’ findings.

  • I agree that the rest of the criteria are quite good which is, of course, why I didn’t critique them. My concern is only that sensitivity to race may be given too much weight in their definition of “jury quality”, especially given that the primary role of juries is supposed to be focused on individual factors (guilt or innocence) not societal defects. Because they are intended in a limited role as the finders as guilt or innocence instead of superheroes righting wrongs, I do not agree with the view that juries should be freely-roaming investigators and repairers of various societal ills.

    No need to get so defensive, David. The singling out of one component of a research piece for discussion is pretty standard practice in both academic and common discourse and it rarely indicates a complete dismissal of the rest of the piece. In fact, it usually indicates the opposite. If I thought that the entirety of Sommers’ findings was indicted, I would have said so.

  • domajot

    Without having read the study, my immediate reaction is that I would EXPECT racial diversity to be a good influence. Any homogeneious group is more likely to succumb to group think, I suspect..

    An all black jury for a black defendant could be vulnerable to being too sympathtic to ‘one of ours’, while an all white jury might see the defendant as the ‘other’ and be oblivious to certain considerations, like racism in the course of arrest and onward. in the legal process.

    When I’ve been called for jury dury, I’ve noted an alarming lack of class diversity. Professional people were glaringly absent, and the jurty pool contained a high percentage of the retired and unemployed. That troubled me.

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