Thursday, June 10, 2010

Grant Trial and Jury Composition

News are beginning to trickle in to the Bay Area about Johannes Mehserle's trial for the murder of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART on New Year 2009. This morning's paper reports on the evidence for the prosecution, and yesterday's paper reported on the jury selection, which yielded a panel devoid of any African American jurors, to the dismay of Grant's family and activists in Oakland.

The question is one of framing: Is this incident to be seen as one particular moment in time, or as part of a trend of bad relationship between the police and minority groups? Arguably, even if we are to accept the narrower former prism, juror race is not irrelevant. As we discussed elsewhere, studies consistently show race bias, and a recent one showed that white males are particularly punitive against black defendants. Will they be forgiving of a white defendant in an incident with inter-racial features? Given the jury composition and the secrecy of jury deliberations, whatever the decision is, we will not be able to know the reasons for it with any degree of certainty.

The details on Mehserle's trial come in the heels of a sobering piece in the New York Times, according to which the jury selection process in Southern States seems to block black jurors from panels. Indeed, even after Batson v. Kentucky, the 1986 case that opened the door to considering racial bias in the use of peremptory challenges, it is still possible to circumvent the accusation that racial motivations shaped juror choice by providing "racially neutral" reasons for exclusion. These reasons need not be particularly sound or convincing.

As an aside, the Los Angeles panel does feature some members of minority groups, including four Hispanic jurors. It may be that, in L.A.'s particular racial map, Hispanic and Latino men and women are in a better position to appreciate the broader problems of police interactions with minorities than the Oakland activists predict.

There seems, however, to be some support for the change-of-venue decision. Coverage in the Los Angeles Times seems to be much less prominent than in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Props to Cullen Wojcik for alerting me to the New York Time's piece.

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