A month ago I wrote about being called to jury duty and my obligation to serve as a Black woman in a system that especially negatively impacts Black people. Since completing jury duty, I really understand the problem.
Unfortunately, I was right about a lot of things. I knew it was going to be a hard couple of days for me when I walked into the King County Courthouse and I started counting. It’s not unusual for me to count the number of people who look like me in a room. In Seattle it’s a survival tactic or a cause for celebration. Two other Black people at the same restaurant? Yes, I am not alone!
At the King County Courthouse, it was a time of disappointment. I counted three people who appeared Black (including myself) among some 150 jurors. That’s 2 percent of the jurors and awfully close to the 2.3 percent that University of Washington sociologist Katherine Beckett found when she studied the demographics of jury pools in King County, where Black people make up 6.8 percent of the population.
I was called up with a pool of 50 jurors to participate in a court case. I was the lone Black juror in the pool. Among the White judge, the White prosecutor and the White public defender stood a Black man staring back at me ready to hear his crimes — shoplifting and indecent exposure — read to a room full of strangers.
The judge, prosecutor and defender asked us a series of questions to uncover conflict, bias or any other reason to dismiss a potential juror. The prosecutor asked me about my work at Real Change, about whether that means I had strong opinions about the criminal justice system. I answered these questions with the weight of being the only Black person in the room who could have a say in this man’s case. I said I can have opinions but know when and how to express them. I said there’s a place for advocacy and calling out injustices, but that my role as a juror was different. I said I am capable of making a decision based on the facts and not political leanings. The prosecutor looked unconvinced of my answer. I knew in that moment that I had no chance of sitting on this trial.
As this reality sank in, the court interviewed a White juror, who was one of the first 12 jurors, meaning that she was first in line to be on the jury. She said she didn’t think she could be an impartial juror because she knew the flaws of the criminal justice system and especially how they negatively impact Black men. She didn’t think she could be a tool of the system. It was a blow to hear this White woman remove herself from a jury as I tried to do everything I could to be accepted.
At the end of questioning, the defendant’s lawyer led a conversation with jurors asking if they thought the defendant was being tried by his peers. Jurors started talking about me, about how they expected to see more people like me, and how they thought there were more Blacks in the county because they ultimately trusted the random selection process, concluding that the jury pool is an accurate representation of his peers.
In the end, I was so far back in the pool that I wasn’t even considered for the jury. I don’t think I ever will be selected. This is where you come in. I will continue to show up for jury duty and will learn to use my time in the jury pool more effectively. I need you to do the same. If you are likely to be on the jury, then tell the truth, show that you can be an impartial juror and stay strong. Even if you are a tool in an unjust system, be present and witness the system firsthand. We can use that information to advocate for change.
The jury composed of 12 White jurors and one person of color found the suspect guilty. Because this is his second incident, he is likely to be convicted of a felony, according to news reports. A poor Black man with a felony is almost guaranteed to remain in poverty and likely in the criminal justice system for the rest of his life. The statistics show this to be true. Let’s do what we can to change them.
Read the full May 17 issue.
Director's Corner: The vital role of Black jurors
Freedom Schools offer lessons in Black culture
Antiracist preschool to open in Columbia City