Supreme Court Rules Out Race as Criterion in Selection of Jury
The Supreme Court, settling one of the most controversial issues in criminal law, ruled today that lawyers trying to put together a favorable jury cannot eliminate potential jurors simply because they are black.
The justices, in a 7-2 decision, reversed the Kentucky Supreme Court and said the conviction of burglar James Batson should be overturned unless it can be shown there were reasons other than race for removing all four blacks from his jury panel.
Writing for the court, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. said: “The harm from discriminatory jury selection extends beyond that inflicted on the defendant and the excluded juror to touch the entire community. Selection procedures that purposefully exclude black persons from juries undermine public confidence in the fairness of our system of justice.”
In a companion case involving prejudice in the courtroom, the justices held that a black defendant who faces the death penalty for killing a white person has a constitutional right to question potential jurors about racial attitudes.
Death Sentence Set Aside
The opinion by Justice Byron R. White set aside the death sentence of Willie Lloyd Turner of Virginia, saying there was an unacceptable risk that racial prejudice encouraged jurors to vote to impose the death penalty. Turner, who is black, was convicted of killing a white jeweler. His trial was held in a rural part of the state.
“Fear of blacks, which could easily be stirred up by the violent facts of (Turner’s) crime, might incline a juror to favor the death penalty,” White wrote for the majority.
“The risk of racial prejudice infecting a capital sentencing proceeding is especially serious in light of the complete finality of the death sentence.”
The impact of the second ruling is limited only to death-penalty cases, but the jury selection decision will affect all criminal trials.
1955 Ruling Overturned
Jury selection has troubled attorneys for two decades, ever since the high court ruled in 1965 in Swain vs. Alabama that the Constitution does not prohibit race-based exclusion of jurors. That portion of the ruling was overturned by today’s decision in the Kentucky case.
During jury selection, lawyers are allowed to exercise what are called peremptory challenges--the right to dismiss members of a jury pool without justification.
Although the number of peremptory challenges varies from state to state, defense and prosecuting attorneys alike have used them to affect the jury’s racial makeup.
The court said the practice “violates a defendant’s right to equal protection because it denies him the protection that a trial by jury is intended to secure.” Since the Swain decision, the court has held that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a trial by an impartial jury means a jury made up of a “fair cross section of the community.”
Today’s opinion dismissed fears from some members of the legal community that prohibiting race-based peremptory challenges would undermine a lawyer’s freedom to shape a jury’s makeup.
“We recognize, of course, that the peremptory challenge occupies an important position in our trial procedures,” the court said. But it added: “We do not agree that our decision today will undermine the contribution the challenge generally makes to the administration of justice.
“By requiring trial courts to be sensitive to the racially discriminatory use of peremptory challenges, our decision enforces the mandate of equal protection and furthers the ends of justice.”
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented from the majority opinion, with Rehnquist calling it an “unprecedented use of the ‘equal protection clause’ to restrict the historic scope of the peremptory challenge.”