The independent news organization of Duke University

Duke professor researches how racial makeup of juries impacts criminal trials

What role does a juror’s race play in a criminal case? One Duke economics professor attempts to answer this question.

Patrick Bayer, Gilhuly Family professor of economics and research assistant at the National Bureau of Economic Research, grew up in the South Side of Chicago, which taught him about segregation firsthand and led him to study labor and housing discrimination. He also became interested in studying racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, especially in relation to juries, due to what he said were a lack of statistics about the system.

“We know shockingly little about the fairness and efficacy of jury trials, despite their fundamental role in our justice system,” he said.

The racial composition of juries plays a crucial role in determining the outcome of court cases, according to Bayer’s research, and prosecutors can abuse this knowledge by requesting trials to move to different jurisdictions with different racial demographics.

Bayer provided context for the case of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old Caribbean man from St. Lucia who was killed in his own apartment by his neighbor, an off-duty police officer. The defense tried to move the trial from Dallas County, which is 29% white, to one of six surrounding suburban counties with a majority-white population. 

“It is easy to see how a request to move the trial to a much more homogeneously white jurisdiction in [this] trial would shape the racial composition of the jury in a way that would favor the defense,” Bayer said. 

To fix this discrepancy, Bayer has proposed a number of solutions. Peremptory challenges, which enable lawyers to exclude potential jurors without stating a reason, create space for prosecutors to remove members of the jury based solely on race, unless the opposition can present sufficient evidence of this ulterior motive.

Consequently, Bayer suggested that reducing the use of peremptory challenge would “[limit] the ability of attorneys to strike all or most of the members of a small minority group.”

Another solution would allow for peremptory challenges but in a less-controlling way, he added. Attorneys could use them to choose between one jury and another—not individual jurors. In this way, prosecutors would have less control over the diversity of the pool. 

“This process [would] raise the chances of getting at least some representation of members of a small minority group on the seated jury when decisions about whether to strike a potential juror are based on race,” Bayer said. 

There are also studies on how other characteristics of jurors, such as political affiliation, gender and age, affect case outcomes—some of which has been conducted by Bayer and his colleagues. He, along with Shamena Anwar—an economist at the RAND Corporation—and Randi Hjalmarsson, an economics professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, conducted one such study. Utilizing data from the Gothenburg District Court in Sweden, the researchers found that individuals from a far-right nationalistic party, the Swedish Democrat Party, were “far more likely to convict defendants with Arabic names,” Bayer said.

An objective of Bayer’s research is to create a dataset on jury composition from his background as an academic in economics, a field where one like it has never existed. As Bayer and his peers are able to compile more information, they will be able to release an accurate report on the effects of racial diversity within juries for the public. 

“A key motivation of my empirical research is to establish systematic evidence on the equity and efficacy of jury trials on the vast number of cases that don’t get this kind of media attention,” he said.

Correction: The defense tried to move the Dallas murder trial to the majority-white suburbs. An earlier version of this article said the prosecution tried to move the trial. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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