I have jury duty next month.
It’s the second time I’ve been summoned in 5 years. I have vivid memories of the last time I served: I sat in Maleng Regional Justice Center’s broom closet pumping milk for my 5-month-old daughter every three hours. I had to find an outlet in the entryway and thread the power cord under the door.
When I tell people what I went through they question why I didn’t try to get out of serving. People think it’s easy to get out of jury duty. Other people in the room came up with reasons at the check-in window. I remember two White men sitting behind me talking about how this was cutting into their fishing time. I jokingly texted my husband, an avid fisherman, to let him know the fish were biting, according to a possible Kent juror.
I highlight the race of these perspective jurors for a reason. Race is why I went to great lengths to show up and do my best to be chosen as a juror; I am a biracial woman with African-American ancestry. Most of the world sees me as Black. I know what it is like to walk through the world as a Black person, and I am aware of the disproportionality of Black individuals in our criminal justice system. In King County, Blacks make up 6.8 percent of the general population but approximately 30 percent of the average daily jail population. In a survey by University of Washington sociologist Katherine Beckett, Blacks represented only 2.3 percent of Seattle jurors. Factors such as less flexibility at work, lower incomes and criminal history prevent many Blacks from being eligible.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides the right for individuals to be tried by their peers, but as the stats show this is not the case for Blacks. So as a Black person, I feel a duty to show up for those who can’t afford to and to make sure that my peers are tried fairly. I’m pretty sure the recreational fishermen don’t feel the same obligation.
Now, this is where my explanation of my own need to show up for jury duty ends. However, I researched a bit further to see if there was any information that backs up my perception that showing up for jury duty is important.
What I found was even more eye-opening than I anticipated. I couldn’t stop reading the stacks of studies that highlight the impact of Black jurors. An article titled “The Impact of Jury Race in Criminal Trials,” published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, explained that just one juror who looks like me can help even the playing field when it comes to verdicts. It explained that “juries formed from all-white jury pools convict black defendants significantly (16 percentage points) more often than white defendants and this gap in conviction rates is entirely eliminated when the jury pool includes at least one black member.” The article further explains that “the presence of one or two blacks in the jury pool results in significantly higher conviction rates for white defendants and lower conviction rates for black defendants.”
Beckett’s report, “The Underrepresentation of Blacks in the King County Jury Pool,” explains how convictions can change, depending on who is in the room. She reports that “even a single black juror can meaningfully affect jury deliberations.” Black jurors make different kinds of contributions and ask different questions than White jurors, according to Beckett. Additionally, White jurors deliberate differently when the jury is diverse. So as a Black person, I bring a unique perspective that can change the conversation. But Black jurors don’t just change the conversation among their fellow jurors; they can influence how the jury is selected, impact how the case is presented and how attorneys on both sides argue the case.
Representation is important and I implore the court system to use different strategies to recruit jurors, including: increasing the rate of juror pay (so more low-income people and people of color are able to serve) and summon more people from Black ZIP codes. Until then, I’m more motivated than ever to show up for jury duty.
I need to be there for my peers because my presence matters, my perspective matters, and my voice matters. Black futures are on the line and I am going to do everything I can to make sure that those people have a fair day in court, even if it means that I need to be inconvenienced a bit to do so. When I say I have jury duty, I say it not with remorse but with the weight of Black peers on my shoulders, and I will do my best to show up.
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