Judicial Notebook

In 1994, the O.J. Simpson double-homicide trial dominated the news, heightening public awareness of spousal assault, celebrity misconduct and racial issues in the courtroom. During voir dire, Simpson and his "Dream Team" carefully selected a "Dream Jury," one composed of nine blacks, one Hispanic and two whites. The jury acquitted the football legend.

Today, O.J. Simpson's name is once again associated with an ongoing homicide case, but this time Allen Snyder is the accused, and the racial composition of Snyder's jury is very different (State v. Snyder, 942 So.2d 484, 2006). Convicted and sentenced to death for murdering his estranged wife's boyfriend, Snyder has appealed his verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court, asserting that the prosecutor in his trial held a discriminatory intent in empanelling an all-white jury. His evidence? Not only did the prosecution use peremptory challenges to strike black jurors, the prosecutor referenced the O.J. Simpson case during the trial.

Racial motivations

Potential jurors can be excluded from jury duty based on challenges for cause (based on jurors' partiality) or through peremptory challenges (attorneys can strike jurors for any reason). Although the number of challenges varies from one jurisdiction to the next, limitations on peremptory challenges prohibit attorneys from systematically striking jurors based on race.

In Batson v. Kentucky 106 S.Ct. 1712 (1986), the Supreme Court held that discriminatory intent could be shown when an attorney exercised peremptory challenges in an unreasonable manner during the trial. In successful Batson challenges, an attorney must first object to opposing counsel's use of a peremptory challenge. The challenged attorney can then present a race-neutral reason for striking the juror. The court then evaluates the persuasiveness of the race-neutral explanation.

In his appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, Snyder claimed the prosecutor employed discriminatory intent in peremptorily challenging five black jurors. This intent, Snyder maintained, was evident in the prosecution's striking of two jurors in particular, both of whom were dismissed based on the inconvenience jury service would place on them--faulty reasoning that sidestepped the fact that white jurors would experience similar inconvenience. Snyder further asserted that the prosecution had a discriminatory intent during the trial, as evidenced by the prosecutor's raising similarities between Snyder's case and the O.J. Simpson trial. The Louisiana Supreme Court held that the reasons presented by the prosecution in support of the peremptory challenges were race-neutral, and that comparisons of Snyder's case to the Simpson trial involved similarities in spousal assault and suicidal ideation rather than a comparison based on race. This term, the Supreme Court has its own shot at determining whether the prosecutor employed discriminatory intent in choosing Snyder's jury (06-10119). But can anyone--particularly the courts--accurately assess such intent?

What the research says

Research indicates that attorneys often use intuition and their own theories about human behavior when empanelling jurors. For example, prosecutors tend to exclude black jurors, while defense attorneys strike white jurors. Such discriminatory intent may not even be conscious.

Research in social cognition suggests that individuals are not always aware of their prejudicial attitudes. Only one study has addressed attorneys' justification for using peremptory challenges: It found that attorneys are unlikely to admit using race to strike jurors. As with Snyder, attorneys often give race-neutral explanations for striking black jurors, even when the same explanation applies to white jurors. At this time, it is unclear what explanations judges are willing to accept.

Unfortunately, the racial composition of the jury can affect deliberations. An analysis of trials indicates that as the proportion of white jurors increases, juries become more punitive toward minority defendants. Research on racial diversity and group decision-making has shown that homogeneous white juries use less deliberation time, discuss fewer case facts, make more uncorrected inaccurate statements, evade the topic of racism and are more likely to believe that a black defendant is guilty than more diverse juries.

If the issue of race does enter into the deliberations of homogeneous juries, other jurors usually quell the topic. In contrast, white jurors in heterogeneous groups tend to engage in more systemic information processing than jurors in homogeneous juries, partly because they must justify their explanations to a diverse group. Given the impact of racial diversity on jury decisions, more research is needed to clarify the utility of peremptory challenges, especially in criminal trials with racial undertones.

The Snyder case is set for oral arguments before the Supreme Court this month.

"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA's Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).