Reasonable doubts about the jury system

In the Third Circuit, for instance, jurors are asked questions to determine if they “have any beliefs, feelings, life experiences, or any other reasons that might influence [them] in rendering a verdict.” Does the fact that the defendant was born in Guatemala matter to you? Would you discriminate against someone based on the color of his skin? As a juror, you think about the person you are—someone who believes deeply in equality—and you answer, “No, of course not.” You know you’re not racist. Case closed: there is no threat of bias toward the Hispanic defendant.

What’s so damaging about this is not just that a juror may end up mistakenly believing that he’s capable of objectivity, but that by weighing in, the Third Circuit stacks the cards against ad­dressing the scourge of implicit racial bias. Now, to enact reform, we must overcome not only people’s inherent skepticism but also the fact that they have been told repeatedly that such bias does not exist: if you know you are completely egalitarian, you cannot discriminate.

The same thing happens when our legal system bolsters the myth that being impartial is simply a choice. Over and over, during the trial process, jurors are instructed to switch off their irrelevant thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. “Do not allow sympathy, prejudice, fear, or public opinion to influence you,” Third Circuit jurors are told. “You should also not be influenced by any person’s race, color, religion, national ancestry, or gender.” Likewise, whenever the judge sustains an objection, “you must disregard the question or the exhibit entirely. Do not think about or guess what the witness might have said in answer to the question; do not think about or guess what the exhibit might have shown.” And if the judge orders evidence to be stricken or removed from the record, “you must not consider [it] or be influenced [by it] in any way.”