March 2001

From University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In unusual 'jury' study, UNC law professors find little overt racism but say race still counts

CHAPEL HILL -- Race remains important when it comes to jury decisions in criminal trials, but not exclusively as many people suspect, according to an unusual new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study. At least in routine cases, jurors nowadays appear not to base verdicts on defendants' color, the research shows. The racial composition of the courtroom, however, clearly matters.

"In our experiments, which involved real North Carolinians called for jury duty, we found no evidence of knee-jerk, vulgar racism," said John Conley, Kenan professor of law at UNC. "On the other hand, jurors aren't color blind, and manipulation of witnesses' race can change the outcome in significant ways."

A report on the findings appears in the new issue of the University of Wisconsin Law Review. Besides Conley, authors are William J. Turnier, Mangum professor of law, also at UNC, and Dr. Mary R. Rose, a social psychologist at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago.

"In the wake of the notorious O.J. Simpson and Rodney King cases -- and more recently, the acquittal of the New York police officers accused of killing Amadou Diallo -- few issues in the administration of justice have drawn as much attention, both scholarly and public, as the practical effects of race in the courtroom," the authors wrote.

"Scholars have debated the existence, nature and moral and political significance of racial effects," they said. "In the political arena, public officials, candidates and commentators across the ideological spectrum have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, reconstructing contested events so as to generate capital with their respective constituencies."

Past studies have focussed on the effects of race in trials, but results have been inconclusive, and no one has successfully replicated trials to test those effects, Conley said. At Turnier's suggestion and with Rose's expert help, the team set about doing just that.

They created two videotaped versions of a short criminal case, with one involving a young white man as the defendant and the other with a young black man as the defendant. Except for race, the tapes were as identical as possible. All actors were white except for the young black man.

"We showed this tape over the course of a year to about 400 people in Wake and Alamance counties in North Carolina," Conley said. "These were people qualified to serve as jurors who had been summoned for jury duty at the courthouse that day. Half watched the black defendant version, and half watched the white defendant version."

After statistical analyses of jurors' opinions, the findings surprised the researchers. "We found a statistically significant effect, and that was that the black defendant was convicted substantially less often than the white defendant," the professor said. "Also, prosecution witnesses were more credible when they testified against the white defendant, and the alibi witness was less credible when he testified for the white defendant."

Jurors, regardless of their own race, acted essentially the same, researchers found. Whites didn't stick up for whites, and blacks didn't stick up for blacks.

For a second round of showings, the team replaced a white female prosecution witness with a black woman and the white male alibi witness with a black man.

"This brought about a striking change in the outcome," Conley said. "Whereas the first time around, the white guy was convicted significantly more often, now there was no difference in conviction rates. Each defendant was found guilty about 50 percent of the time."

In experiments where they altered class -- how much money the defendants' parents appeared to have -- they found no differences in conviction rates. The findings on race prompted the group to propose a theory they call "the racial ecology of the courtroom." "We believe the most likely interpretation of the first situation was that people were sensitive to the isolation of the black man in an all-white prosecution environment," Turnier said. "Jurors, both black and white, acted like they thought this guy was being ganged up on and believed there was something wrong with that. When we injected racial balance into the courtroom by having a black prosecution witness, that concern seemed to evaporate."

One lesson from the study is that people both within and outside the legal system shouldn't make simplistic assumptions about the influence of race on a jury, he said. Racism isn't a given, at least at this time in the nation's history, but the effect of the racial mix at trial is both real and complicated.

"Another ramification of this work is that it gives you a new kind of argument for diversity," Turnier said. "We usually make arguments for diversity on essentially moral grounds. Here is a very practical reason -- that when you have the sense that the courtroom is representative, then jurors don't think about race. They focus exclusively on the evidence, which is what we would hope they do."

The professor said it was regrettable that people judged the nation's legal system by results in the O.J. Simpson trial, which was highly atypical. More than 99.9 percent of criminal cases don't get a lot of publicity, don't have high-priced lawyers, don't include celebrities and don't involve people making overt efforts to manipulate race. "To me personally, the single most striking thing about this work was the similarity, the indistinguishability, in how white jurors and African-American jurors responded throughout the experiments," Conley said. "They were responding in exactly the same way to all the different cues we gave them."

Turnier, Rose and Conley have presented their study to faculty at various university law schools around the country, including Duke, Virginia, Alabama and Georgetown and also to the Law and Society Association, the major professional group for scholars doing social science research about the law, they said. The reaction was good because people are eager to acquire hard data on what race really means for the legal system. The team plans to expand its work by varying the cues jurors receive from defendants' videotaped appearance, speech and apparent background, Turnier said. That's important because such cues might prompt racial stereotypes that affect verdicts. Also, crimes that some people associate with particular races might influence jurors' decisions and need to be studied.

Note: Conley and Turnier's office numbers are 919-962-8502 and 962-4114, respectively. Turnier will be in Alabama March 21-22 and can be reached there at either 205-348-1127 or 343-1763. March 23, he will return to Chapel Hill and can be called at home at 919-933-1198.

UNC School of Law UNC News Services











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