Why African Americans Need to Report for Jury Duty

african american jurors

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Some pieces of mail, like a refund check or birthday card, are welcome surprises. Others, like a jury summons, make you want to nail the mailbox shut. While reporting for jury duty can be inconvenient, resist the temptation to throw your jury notice in with the Bed Bath and Beyond coupons or Penny Saver. Jurors provide an important legal service. While every juror’s vote matters, African American jurors have a special duty to serve. This piece will explain why African Americans need to report for jury duty.

Jury Duty: What Juries Do

The U.S. legal system uses two types of juries – grand juries and petit juries. Grand juries decide whether charges should be brought. Generally, a prosecutor convenes a grand jury and presents the evidence. After the presentation, the grand jurors decide whether the evidence is sufficient to support criminal charges. If they agree, they return a “true bill” – also known as an indictment. So, grand juries hold considerable power.

The grand jury begins the process, but the petit jury (French for small jury) ends it. The petit jury is the 12-person jury that most Americans know. In the American legal system, judges decide legal matters such as the which evidence can be presented at trial and which arguments can be made. But petit juries decide which evidence and arguments should be believed. Petit juries decide guilt in criminal cases. In civil cases, petit juries determine the cause of injuries and the amount of any damages.

Whether grand or petit, civil or criminal, juries and jurors provide a vital service in our legal system.

How Juries are Selected

Jury selection varies from place to place, but the process is generally the same. The clerk of court or some similar officer usually maintains a list of all eligible jurors composed of registered voters, drivers, and other public records. From this list, the jury office randomly selects a group of people. This group is given a date and time to appear for jury duty.

However, the court can’t call twelve people at a time. Depending on the size of the city, hundreds of people can be called for jury at a time. Usually, those summoned wait to see it any cases will go to trial that day. If a case goes to trial, the potential jurors are sent into the courtroom and asked to answer a series of questions. Lawyers call this questioning process voir dire. The questions help lawyers know who they want on the jury.

Jury service is often inconvenient. However, courts pay jurors for their service. Also, once you serve, you’re usually excused from further jury service for a few years afterward.

Jury Duty: Why African American Jurors Matter

Though many people feel that jury service is a minor matter, every juror’s vote matters. In nearly every state, criminal juries must reach a unanimous decision. So, if even one person votes “not guilty,” the defendant will go free. Clearly, jury service matters.

While all jurors are important, African American jurors have a special duty to serve for several reasons. First, African Americans are often excluded from jury lists. Though courts draw jurors from a master list, experts note that jury lists usually overrepresent whites and underrepresent African Americans and Latinos. Therefore, there are fewer African Americans available for jury duty. Because not as many of us are called to serve, when we are called, we must serve.

Second, African American jurors influence outcomes. Though some believe one person can’t make a difference, the research shows that African American jurors make a difference. In study after study, experts have found that having even one African American juror changes a trial’s outcome. The Washington Post reported one study’s finding that seating just one African American on the jury reduced the rate of convictions for Black defendants by ten percent. Other studies have reached similar conclusions. In short, if you are Black, your jury service can literally change a person’s life.

Jury duty can be inconvenient, boring, and many other things. But for African American jurors, the duty is an important one. To make sure you can serve, update your voter data, vehicle registration, and driver’s license information.  Do everything you can to ensure that you are available for jury service. Continue to follow The African American Attorney Network for more information about legal issues affecting the African American community.