How Blind Is Justice?

A letter in my mailbox last spring from the Cambridge District Court told me that I had been selected for jury duty. Students in Middlesex County are not exempt from serving, so I filled in my confirmation form and waited for an assignment.

I was actually quite excited about the prospect of fulfilling my civic obligation. I have always been interested in the way law and the courts work--hey, I did mock trials in high school--so this would be a chance to see the real thing in action. I also firmly believe in the concept of trial by a jury of one's peers; it is undeniably one of the cornerstones of our judicial system, and goes hand in hand with the American conception of democracy.

When the day arrived, I got up at 8:00 a.m. and made it on time to the Middlesex County Courthouse. There were at least 300 people in the room, and I was impressed by the obvious differences in age, education and economic background. As we carefully watched a videotape explaining what we could expect and what our responsibilities were, I felt a real sense of accomplishment--for a system that could bring together so many different people for a single purpose.

We were all given numbers that separated us into panels. When a jury was needed for a trial, they called one or more of the panels to go up to a courtroom. There would then be a selection process with questions designed to separate people who might not be able to serve on the jury of a trial and hear the evidence with an unbiased ear. I sat and read the newspaper for a long time before my panel was called, and my excitement began to build.

WE were taken up in a special elevator with an armed security guard who had us file into the courtroom spectator seats. About 75 of us sat there. A side door opened and a young Black man, about 19, walked in with one white man and sat at one of the tables in front of the bench. He had a stony look on his face, and walked in staring at the floor.

Then the judge came in, and as we all rose, I was struck by a fact I hadn't noticed as all of the jurors sat there--only two of us were Black.

The judge explained that the young man sitting in front of us was accused of robbing a home and began a series of questions to determine which of us were impartial. He asked how many had been the victims of a robbery, or knew someone who had, how many knew the accused or had seen him before, how many knew the victims, and so on. After each question, anyone who raised their hand was called to the bench to explain to the judge why they might not be impartial. He would either excuse them or determine that it would not have bearing on the case at hand.

I was bothered throughout, especially since the two Blacks on the panel were excused because they had been robbed before. I did not feel that it was fair for a Black man to be answerable to 12 white jurors and a white judge. How could the result be much different from the way things worked in the South, where for a long time. Blacks were purposely excluded from juries.

I struggled with what I should do, and when the judge asked if there were any other reason why someone felt they could not be impartial, I raised my hand. I did not know if this was the right thing to do, but when I explained it to the judge, and answered yes when he asked if I truly believed that it would prevent me from objectively listening to the facts as presented by the lawyers, he said he had no choice but to excuse me.

The Supreme Court last week heard the evidence of case number 87-5259, Teague v. Lane. The question to be decided is whether prosecutors may disqualify certain potential jurors based on their race. It is not one of the cases which made headlines on the first Monday in October, but it is a truly important one.

In 1963, the Court heard Swain v. Alabama which tried to raise the same question. A 19-year-old Black man had been sentenced to death by an all-white jury. His attorneys argued that not only was this unfair, but that no Black person "within the memory of persons now living [had] ever served on an petit jury in any civil or criminal case tried in Talladega County, Alabama." This was in spite of the fact that "of the group designated by Alabama as generally eligible for jury service in that county, 74 percent (12,125) were white and 26 percent (4,281) were Negro."

The court opinion, based on precedent, agreed that the fact that no Black had ever served could prove that "the peremptory system is being used to deny the Negro the same right and opportunity to participate in the administration of justice enjoyed by the white population,... ends the peremptory system is not designed to facilitate or justify.

Unfortunately, the majority of the Court concluded that there was insufficient evidence to show when or how often the prosecution had excluded qualified jurors on the basis of race, besides the case at hand. A dissenting opinion was written by Justice Arthur Goldberg, joined by Chief Justice Warren and Justice Douglas, pointing out that this reasoning unfairly put the entire burden of proof on the defendant.

"If the instant case," Goldberg wrote, "is really a unique case, as the court implies, surely the burden of proof should be on the State to show it....It is part of the established tradition in the use of juries as instruments of public justice that the jury be a body truly representative of the community. For racial discrimination to result in the exclusion from jury service of otherwise qualified groups not only violates our Constitution...but is at war with our basic concepts of a democratic society and a representative government..."

I do not claim that Cambridge somehow prevents Blacks from being called for jury duty. However, it seems that the problem faced by that young Black man I saw is not as unique as I once thought. Moreover, it appears quite reasonable to speculate that the disproportionately larger numbers of Blacks than whites who have received death sentences may be due to all-white juries. Juries, no matter how noble their purpose, do not exist in a vacuum, and one white racist could unfairly influence the decision.

How can any Black who has seen an incident like this believe that the system would work for them? The same question applies to the perennial election year debate over why so few Blacks register to vote. If the system repeatedly denies equal treatment to all its citizens, the experiment of democracy breaks down. If one Black person has been discriminated against by a biased jury, then how can any of us have faith that justice exists?