Sixty-five years ago today, an all-white jury acquitted the accused murderers of Emmett Till—a 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched after allegedly offending a white woman in a local shop. The jury spent just over an hour deliberating. Months later, the suspects confessed and faced no punishment because they had already been tried.
Fast-forward to today, and juries still lack racial diversity—vastly increasing the chance that trials will produce an unjust verdict. This must change. Lives depend on it.
A growing body of research shows that racial diversity on a jury is crucial for a fair trial. Consider a 2012 study from Duke University analyzing more than 700 non-capital felony criminal cases in Florida. The researchers revealed that juries formed from all-white jury pools convicted Black defendants 16% more often than white defendants.
In a landmark study in 2006, researchers from Tufts University recruited 200 participants to form mock juries, some all white and some that were racially diverse. The researchers found that diverse groups spent more time deliberating and discussed more of the facts surrounding the case than the non-white groups—leading to fairer results.
Yet today’s juries lack racial diversity. That’s in large part because many attorneys deliberately exclude people of color from serving on juries—even though it is illegal to eliminate someone from jury selection due to their race.
There is a mountain of evidence of this abuse. A 2010 analysis from the Equal Justice Initiative of eight southern states uncovered sweeping efforts to remove people of color from jury pools. Some district attorneys explicitly instructed prosecutors to nix people of color from juries, and guided them on how to dodge any allegations of racial prejudice in jury selection.
The results are sadly predictable. Take one 2020 study from Berkeley Law that looked at jury selection in 700 California cases. In 72% of cases, district attorneys used their strikes to remove Black jurors, and in 28% Latinx jurors were struck. White jurors, on the other hand, were removed in less than 1% of cases. In my home state of Mississippi, in 225 trials prosecuted by District Attorney Doug Evans, Black jurors were struck four times as often as white jurors, according to a study from APM Reports.
This discrimination has devastating consequences for people in our criminal justice system.
The experience of Curtis Flowers—a Black man who underwent six trials for the same crime—offers a clear example. My organization, the Mississippi Center for Justice, started defending him in the spring of 2020. In each trial, the aforementioned district attorney deliberately eliminated Black jurors from the trial. In the four trials with one or no Black jurors, Flowers was found guilty—only to later have those verdicts overturned by a higher court for blatant racial discrimination in the jury selection process. In trials with more than one Black juror, the result was a hung jury. The charges against Flowers’ were finally dropped this month—but he still spent more than two decades of his life behind bars.
Weeks prior, in August, Ronnie Wallace Long—another Black man—was finally freed after being falsely convicted by a white jury of raping a white woman. He spent 44 years locked up. Last year, Darrell Jones, also Black, was freed after spending 32 years behind bars. He too was originally found guilty—incorrectly—by a white jury.
Part of the reason juries often lack diversity is that it is incredibly difficult to prove that a potential juror is being eliminated due to their race. And in the rare cases that attorneys are caught doing so, they almost never experience any punishment or penalty. This lack of accountability allows discriminatory practices to run rampant.
From Emmett Till six decades ago to now, our justice system has been distorted by blatant racial prejudice in the jury selection process. As a former prosecutor, let me say it clearly: This discrimination must end.