A recent news report will give Black people one more reason to doubt the fairness of the American criminal justice system.
According to an article in The Houston Chronicle, a Wharton County, Texas prosecutor said he was advised to exclude Black people from jury trials. This is a problem that has been widely reported by The Atlanta Black Star. Even though the Supreme Court ruled against the practice in Batson v. Kentucky in 1986, prosecutors find ways to get Black people off jury trials because they are less likely to convict or approve the death penalty.
The Equal Justice Initiative reported that in some cases Black jurors have been dismissed for frivolous reasons, such as appearing to have “low intelligence,” wearing eye glasses or dyeing their hair. Prosecutors claim these are “race neutral” reasons, but the goal seems to be get an all-white jury.
In court records, Nathan Wood said he received not too subtle instructions from his boss, District Attorney Ross Kurtz, to exclude Black jurors. According to The Chronicle, Kurtz told him having Blacks on the jury reduced their chances of winning the trial.
“I was not ‘instructed’ to strike black jurors so much as I was advised or encouraged to do so as a matter of trial strategy,” said Wood. “Whatever the true intentions behind the statements made in our office, they made me feel uncomfortable, and I shared that discomfort with a friend.”
However, Kurtz denied the practice in an email to The Chronicle.
“My instructions and guidance has always been and will always be that prosecutors should not take race into account in exercising the choices allowed by law on which potential jurors to strike,” he said.
If the allegations prove to be true, it calls into question several cases Kurtz has presided over. The Chronicle cited a case where a Black defendant was convicted of assault by a jury that didn’t contain any Black people. During the trial, the defendant’s attorney, Mark Racer, objected to this practice.
“This is just a win-at-all costs mentality that shouldn’t be there,” said Racer. “And clearly one of the prosecutors was uncomfortable with it.”
Although Kurtz denied excluding Black jurors, several other attorneys have said the practice is widespread. JoAnne Musick, who worked as a prosecutor from 1998 to 2003, told The Chronicle that she also witnessed the practice.
“I had people tell me to go ahead and strike them and just write down race-neutral reasons,” said Musick. “I like to believe I never actually did it, but that’s the way I was told to do it.”
Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said this practice comprises the impartiality of the criminal justice system.
“The under-representation and exclusion of people of color from juries has seriously undermined the credibility and reliability of the criminal justice system, and there is an urgent need to end this practice,” said Stevenson in an article on the EJI’s website. “While courts sometimes have attempted to remedy the problem of discriminatory jury selection, in too many cases today we continue to see indifference to racial bias.”