The relationship between race and the decision making of juries is complex and controversial. Media and public discussions of the topic often focus on anecdotal evidence in the form of recent high-profile cases in the United States. Researchers, on the other hand, have begun to generate a wide-ranging empirical literature regarding the influence of a defendant’s race on jurors, between-race differences in juror tendencies, and the effects of jury racial composition on verdicts and deliberations. The findings of these studies are not always consistent, and the psychological processes through which race influences decision making merit additional investigation. Nonetheless, this body of research clearly indicates that race has the potential to affect trial outcomes—a conclusion that is noteworthy from a practical standpoint and carries important implications for ongoing debates regarding jury representativeness, peremptory use during jury selection, and racial disparities in capital sentencing.
Researchers who investigate these issues typically do not seek to provide definitive conclusions concerning whether race was influential in any particular case. Rather, this research attempts to identify—through a variety of methodologies—general tendencies and statistical trends regarding race. Some researchers conduct archival analyses, selecting a sample of actual cases from a particular jurisdiction over a particular time period and using regression analysis to determine whether a variable such as defendant race reliably predicts verdicts. Other researchers conduct interviews with former jurors to assess perceptions of the role played by race at trial or to compare the experiences of jurors of different races. Social scientists tend to use mock juror experiments and jury simulations in which judgments are compared across slightly different versions of the same case or between juries of different racial compositions. Each of these research strategies has unique strengths and limitations, emphasizing the importance of converging empirical findings from multiple study types.
Race of Defendant
From a historical perspective, the question of whether the race of defendants influences legal decision making can be answered with a straightforward “yes.” In the pre-Civil War United States, for example, statutes mandated that certain behaviors were illegal when practiced by Blacks but not by Whites; different punishments were also on the books for White versus Black perpetrators. Even well into the 20th century, “Jim Crow” laws not only facilitated racial segregation in the U.S. South, but also criminalized behaviors and established punishments that disproportionately targeted Blacks. A long litany of anecdotal examples indicates that such overtly disparate treatment was not confined to legislative bodies and law enforcement but was also apparent in jury verdicts and appellate court rulings.
In the past half-decade, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the end of statutory discrimination, it has become more difficult to provide unqualified answers to questions regarding defendant’s race. As fewer individuals become willing to endorse overtly prejudicial attitudes or to admit to racial discrimination, researchers have come to focus on behavioral measures in the effort to assess the influence of race. This development mirrors more general trends in social science research: Many theorists have described contemporary manifestations of racial bias as more subtle and ambiguous than in previous eras, and few empirical investigations today rely on self-report measures to identify the influence of race.
Much current research on the issue of defendant’s race addresses the question of whether White jurors render different judgments in cases involving White versus Black defendants. Presumably, this focus reflects both the historical context reviewed above (in which Black defendants have often received disproportionately harsh treatment at the hands of a pre-dominantly White legal system) as well as a more general tendency in social science research to consider racial bias in terms of the dichotomy of White perceivers and Black targets. Literature reviews and meta-analyses of experimental research report mixed findings regarding the influence of race on White mock jurors, but a general tendency emerges such that Whites, often, are more conviction-prone and recommend harsher sentences for Black versus White defendants. A smaller number of archival analyses provide converging evidence for this conclusion.
A great deal remains unknown regarding the influence of a defendant’s race, however. The case-by-case variability of these effects suggests the importance of determining precisely when and why a defendant’s race colors legal judgments. Studies have identified a range of factors that render defendant race more likely to influence jurors, including when the evidence at trial is ambiguous, when the crime in question is violent, and in the face of incriminating inadmissible evidence or inflammatory pretrial publicity. Further exploration of these and other variables is needed, as are future examinations involving defendants of races other than White and Black. The race of the victim is another important consideration because archival research on capital sentencing indicates that the influence of a defendant’s race is often greater for interracial versus same-race murders; indeed, the “Baldus study,” an extensive archival investigation discussed in the U.S. Supreme Court’s McCleskey v. Kemp (1987) decision, indicates that victim race is an even stronger predictor of capital sentencing outcomes than defendant race.
Efforts to combat disparate legal treatment by race would also be facilitated by a better understanding of the psychological processes through which a defendant’s race affects jurors. To the extent that hostile attitudes toward defendants of particular groups, in-group/out-group effects, or overt motivations for race-based jury nullification are responsible for such effects, accurate identification of biased jurors during jury selection becomes of paramount importance. But a defendant’s race may influence even those jurors who do not harbor explicit racial prejudices or motivations. Cognitive associations between race and crime likely impact legal judgments, either because jurors personally endorse the belief that individuals of particular racial groups are more likely to commit certain crimes or through mere awareness of the race-relevant crime stereotypes endemic to society and perpetuated by popular culture. The processes through which a defendant’s race influences decision making merit additional empirical attention.
Race of Juror
As mentioned above, the majority of experimental research regarding defendant race has focused exclusively on the individual judgments of White jurors. A smaller subset of studies has examined the judgments of jurors of other races. The objective of such studies, typically, is not to identify general between-race differences in juror verdict tendencies (e.g., non-White jurors are more acquittal prone than Whites; Black jurors are particularly skeptical of police testimony), despite the fact that many legal practitioners and laypeople harbor such across-the-board assumptions. Rather, most studies examining juror race seek to determine whether particular factors—such as defendant race—have different effects on jurors of different backgrounds.
On the question of the intersection between defendant and juror race, many experiments have converged on the conclusion that jurors are likely to be lenient toward same-race defendants. In other words, the finding that Black defendants tend to be judged more harshly than White defendants is likely specific to studies involving White jurors; the opposite pattern is often expected for Black jurors. In fact, more than one mock juror experiment has indicated that the influence of a defendant’s race is more pronounced or consistent among Black jurors than among White jurors. However, the interaction between juror and defendant race is complex, and a notable exception to this “same-race leniency” tendency can be found in what some researchers refer to as the “black sheep effect.” Studies have demonstrated that in some instances, jurors tend to be harsher in their judgments of a same-race defendant, such as when the evidence against the defendant is unambiguously strong, the crime in question is particularly heinous, or the victim is also of the same race as the juror.
Studies using actual trials have examined juror race by comparing the subjective jury service experiences of individuals of different races. Interviews with jurors from capital cases, for example, have revealed that White jurors report greater satisfaction with their jury experiences than do non-White jurors, that Black jurors are more concerned that the jury may have made a mistake than their White counterparts, and that Black jurors are sometimes concerned that the Whites with whom they served failed to understand Black defendants’ personal circumstances. Again, though, most of these studies only examine White and Black participants, and much remains to be learned regarding the ways in which the experiences and decision making of jurors varies and converges across different racial groups.
Jury Racial Composition
Although the title of this entry refers to “juries and race,” the research described to this point has focused not on the decision making of juries but rather on the private judgments of individual jurors. Most research examining race and legal decision making at the group level is archival in nature. One finding to emerge from this literature parallels the between-race juror effects reported above: The greater the proportion of Whites to non-Whites on a jury, the harsher a jury tends to be toward non-White defendants. This group-level variation on the same-race leniency phenomenon has been observed for Whites and Blacks on capital juries as well as for Whites and Latinos on nonfelony juries. A smaller number of experimental studies have produced comparable findings among investigations of White and Black jurors, White and Latino jurors, and jurors of African versus Indian descent.
Whereas archival analyses demonstrate that a jury’s racial composition is associated with its verdict tendencies, only experimental data reveal the causal link between composition and decision. But even experiments rarely shed much light on the processes through which such influence occurs. There are multiple possible explanations for why a jury’s composition sometimes affects its decision making, and these possibilities are not mutually exclusive. First, the relationship between a jury’s composition and its verdict may simply be the group-level manifestation of the same-race leniency effect found among individual jurors. That is, to the extent that generalized differences exist between, for example, the tendencies of White and Black jurors for a given case, the racial makeup of a jury is likely to shape the predeliberation jury vote split and, therefore, also likely to have an impact on verdict tendencies. In this manner, more Black jurors in a trial involving a Black defendant might render a guilty verdict less likely because Black jurors tend to be more lenient toward Black defendants than are White jurors.
There are additional explanations for the effects of a jury’s racial composition beyond a simple demographic, vote-split account. Indeed, archival and experimental investigations have found that a jury’s racial composition can predict not only verdict tendencies but also the process and content of its deliberations. Many legal scholars and judges have argued that a diverse jury composition leads to a diversity of information exchanged during deliberations. The assumption underlying this proposition is typically that jurors from racial minority groups tend to bring to the jury room different perspectives and life experiences than would otherwise be heard during deliberations of homogeneously White juries. Though few empirical jury studies have tested this prediction, research from nonlegal domains has demonstrated a link between a demographic diversity and the breadth of perspectives with which a group approaches a decision. But the effects of jury composition need not be wholly attributed to the informational contributions of racial minority jurors. Recent research—set in both legal and nonlegal contexts— suggests that a diverse group composition also affects the judgments and cognitive performances of White individuals. Specifically, experimental research indicates that the racial composition of a jury can affect White mock jurors’ verdict preferences, evidence processing, and performance during deliberations; even the mere expectation of deliberating on a diverse jury has been found to influence the private judgments of White as well as Black mock jurors.
In sum, research on jury racial composition—like research on race and legal decision making more generally—has provided compelling evidence that race can exert a causal effect on trial outcomes. The precise mechanisms that account for this influence of racial composition remain in need of additional empirical investigation, as do a variety of questions regarding the generalizability of these findings across different types of cases and racial groups. Moreover, published research on this topic does not allow for definitive assessment of whether a jury’s racial composition was influential in any particular case or whether a different verdict would have been reached by a jury with a different composition. Nonetheless, jury racial composition appears to be more than a constitutional consideration; it is a variable with the potential for performance effects related to intragroup dynamics, deliberation content, and final verdict.
- Baldus, D. C., Woodworth, G., & Pulaski, C. A., Jr. (1990). Equal justice and the death penalty: A legal and empirical analysis. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Bowers, W. J., Steiner, B. D., & Sandys, M. (2001). Death sentencing in Black and White: An empirical analysis of jurors’ race and jury racial composition. University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law, 3, 171-275.
- McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987).
- Mitchell, T. L., Haw, R. M., Pfeifer, J. E., & Meissner, C. A. (2005). Racial bias in mock juror decision-making: A meta-analytic review of defendant treatment. Law and Human Behavior, 29, 621-637.
- Sommers, S. R. (2006). On racial diversity and group decision-making: Identifying multiple effects of racial composition on jury deliberations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 597-612.
- Sommers, S. R., & Ellsworth, P. C. (2003). How much do we really know about race and juries? A review of social science theory and research. Chicago-Kent Law Review, 78, 997-1031.
Return to the overview of Trial Consulting in Forensic Psychology.