How to Weave a Hanging Jury

Juror selection may explain the glaring racial bias in capital convictions

Death penalty opponents have long asserted that capital punishment is administered in a racially disproportionate manner. For example, African-Americans constitute only 11.6% of the Texas population but more than 41% of those on the state's death row in Livingston. UT-Arlington sociology professor Robert L. Young has completed a study, which helps to explain why.

Young's recent article in the academic journal Deviant Behavior, "Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Conviction Orientation, Racial Attitudes, and Support for Capital Punishment," asserts that the process of jury selection in capital cases results in the selection of jurors who are generally in favor of the death penalty and thus has a significant impact on both convictions and death sentences.

Young used data from the 1990 and 1996 General Social Surveys by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to analyze the relationship between the "law and order" orientation of capital jurors and their attitudes regarding both conviction and race. Young found that "respondents who score high on racial prejudice [are] more likely than others to support capital punishment; they also are more likely to feel that it is a more serious mistake to acquit guilty defendants than to convict innocent ones." These jurors, says Young, are more likely – although he does not say how much more likely – to ignore the foundation of our criminal justice system, the presumption of innocence, especially when the defendant is African-American.

Young concludes, "[T]he weight of scientific evidence suggests that the constitutional rights of equality under the law and freedom from the arbitrary administration of that law, at this point in time, cannot be guaranteed to many Americans accused of capital crimes." Young's findings echo Justice Harry Blackmun's conclusion in Callins v. Collins: "the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake. ... [As currently administered,] the death penalty experiment has failed."

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Death Penalty, Robert L. Young, capital punishment, Deviant Behavior, Harry Blackmun

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