• Margaret Helein

Impartial or ignorant? How “impartiality” is an excuse to exclude Black jurors from courtrooms


A portrait of Ahmaud Arbery. Courtesy of https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/12/us/ahmaud-arbery-autopsy.html

The jury has finally been selected for the trial of Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. However, it took over two weeks and a record number of jury notices to get there. Why? Maybe because the traditional notion of an “impartial juror” is becoming obsolete.


And maybe it should.


The jury selection process began when the Glynn County Courthouse sent out 1,000 jury notices to Georgians in the Brunswick community—a predominantly Black community in a predominantly white county—according to Glynn County Superior Court Clerk Ronald Adams. For context, Adams noted the average number of jury notices he sends out is usually between 100 and 150. Six-hundred of those thousand potential jurors were called to appear at an offsite location for the beginning of voir dire on Monday, Oct. 18, and the rest were called to appear the following Monday. At the end of the first week, only 23 people were chosen for further consideration.


Many legal spectators were shocked by the intensity of the screening. CNN legal analyst Page Pate said, “They could only find 23 [people] who were impartial enough just to make it to step number two. That’s unusual. That’s extremely unusual.”


However, should this have been a surprise? In an increasingly accessible world where everything—even gruesome executions—can be shared online for billions of people to see and form their own opinions on, should we be surprised that the notion of the “impartial juror” is becoming obsolete in cases such as Ahmaud Arbery’s?


What do we even mean by “impartiality?” The standards for impartiality in the present case seem to be synonymous with “tone-deaf,” “ignorant,” and “complicit” based on the questions defense counsel posed. The court seems to be dismissing any potential jurors who have an inkling of awareness about racial discrimination and white nationalist violence. This trend is reflective of American history. Prior to the Civil War, Black Americans were excluded from serving on juries because they were considered property, and afterwards, Black Americans were still largely excluded from this critical civil duty.


One potential juror referred to Arbery’s death as a “lynching,” indicating the juror’s understanding of the racial motivations of the defendants by using such a graphic and racially-charged term. Another potential juror said, “I think if it was a white guy running through the neighborhood, I don’t think he would have been targeted.”


The jurors were also asked whether they supported the Black Lives Matter movement, Blue Lives Matter movement, or participated in protests during the summer of 2020. One potential juror who identified as Black indicated that he had and said the defendants should be convicted of all charges. He was promptly dismissed.


One by one, jurors that expressed similar sentiments were dismissed, too. Barbara Arnwine, president of a prominent non-profit organization committed to racial and civil rights, said these kinds of questions were aimed at weeding out Black jurors, and it was ridiculous to “pretend” that asking those questions was “about anything [other than] getting rid of Black jurors.” She said it was “one of the most racially discriminatory and unfair processes [she’s] seen in [her] life.”


After over two weeks of voir dire, the seated jury comprised eleven white jurors and only one Black juror.

nterestingly enough, many of the same sentiments were expressed by potential jurors in the Derek Chauvin trial, a case similarly rooted in racial motivations and also involving a viral cell phone video that served as a catalyst for national outrage. However, the jurors in that case were not dismissed for expressing their perspectives. Potential jurors in the Chauvin trial were also asked about their support for movements such as Black Lives Matter, and some of the jurors who expressed support for those groups were selected to sit on the jury anyway. Wesleyan University Associate Professor of Government Sonali Chakravarti said that because “these people held these views and still served on the jury, [it] shows a path toward greater democratic representation in America’s courtrooms,” a place from which Black Americans have historically been excluded. It shows courts are recognizing that an understanding of racial discrimination in the criminal legal system does not necessarily render a potential juror biased. Chakravarti said, “The jury in the Chauvin trial included a broader perspective of life experiences than is typical in America’s courtrooms, better fulfilling the ideal of why we have juries in the first place.”


Therefore, while the results of jury selection in the present case are discouraging to say the least, there seems to be some steps forward in other parts of the country as courts realize that maybe the eradication of “impartiality” in jurors as we have understood it since the days of Reconstruction is not as bad as it is made out to be.

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