In Brief

Contrary to the popular notion that racially charged cases provoke biased decisions, white jurors demonstrate prejudice more often when race is not a prominent concern, according to the results of a new study, published in this month's Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.

Samuel R. Sommers and Phoebe C. Ellsworth, researchers at the University of Michigan, found that when race is a key issue, societal expectations are elicited and jurors heed popular egalitarian ideals. Yet when the "race card" is not played, whites are more susceptible to making prejudiced decisions.

In the study, Sommers and Ellsworth gauged how and when racism manifests in white jurors by presenting 196 randomly selected white participants with written accounts of an interracial assault between basketball team members. Half of the summaries featured a white defendant and a black victim; the other half described the plaintiff as white and the accused as black.

To render race a significant issue, half the summaries included language about the defendant's cultural isolation and subjection to "racial remarks and unfair criticism by his teammates." All included details of the defendant's height, age and weight so that the mock jurors would not deduce the study's intended focus.

When race was a leading issue, the defendants were convicted at similar rates. When race was not at the forefront, however, 90 percent of the white jurors chose to convict the black defendant compared with a 70 percent conviction rate for the white defendant. When asked to gauge their confidence in their verdict, the mock jurors revealed they were more prone to harsh judgment of the black defendant when race was not of vital concern. Though the cases were identical, they determined that the defense's arguments on behalf of the white defendant were stronger.

The results suggest a subtle and problematic inclination towards racism among white jurors that could potentially distort the judicial process. The researchers are also considering whether increasing the diversity of juror members could affect racial bias. "Individual jurors might be less likely to act on prejudicial beliefs when their fellow jurors are not all the same race as they are," Sommers says.

Specifically, Sommers and Ellsworth encourage courts to uphold Batson v. Kentucky (1986), the Supreme Court decision disallowing race to be the sole determinant in choosing potential jurors.