The defendant was an African-American man. The judge and jury were white, as were the bailiff, court recorder, prosecutor, defense attorney and three of the four witnesses.
When I told my family about what I experienced during my jury duty in Seattle Municipal Court, one of my sons commented, “That sounds like Mississippi in the 1930s.”
He wasn’t referring to the spacious and light-filled juror assembly room on the top floor of the building at Fifth and Cherry. The assembly room has comfortable seating, free coffee, a fridge, a microwave and a gorgeous view.
A juror-assembly staff member told us that each week 300 jurors are called. During my session, 86 jurors showed up. We arrived on a Tuesday morning and waited most of the day for the first jury panel to be chosen. During the hours of waiting, I studied my fellow jurors.
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The first thing I noticed was age. I’m 65, and only about 10 people were older than me, and the rest were distributed evenly. A few appeared to be in their 20s, something I hadn’t expected.
Deeply disheartening, however, was the racial representation. In stark contrast to the ethnic diversity I see on Seattle’s streets, I saw very little in the jury room. Only two of the 86 potential jurors were African American, and two were Asian-American.
The following day I found out I had been chosen and would serve on the jury for a robbery case. The defendant was an African-American man. The judge and jury were white, as were the bailiff, court recorder, prosecutor, defense attorney and three of the four witnesses.
I will never forget the scene in that courtroom: One African-American man surrounded by a sea of white people deciding his fate. Mississippi in the 1930s or Seattle in 2017?
Race wasn’t the only demographic out of whack. My six-person jury comprised an engineer, two people in management, two researchers and myself, a minister and writer. Three of us, or maybe more, had graduate degrees.
During one of our breaks, we talked about how, in most jobs, jury duty is not an option. One of my fellow jurors had previously worked at Costco, and he said he never would have asked for time off for jury duty, nor would he have been able to afford to take the time off without pay.
I’d like to know if my experience was typical.
The case was weak, and we agreed on a “not guilty” verdict. Throughout the trial, I kept asking myself, “What would I be thinking if the defendant were white?” I was following the advice in an excellent video on unconscious bias shown to all the jurors on Tuesday morning. But can an 11-minute video overcome years of unconscious bias?
How can we say we provide a justice system if we can’t guarantee its basic principle: A jury of one’s peers? Many countries use juries only for felonies with high sentences.
The “jury of one’s peers” system appears to be broken, like so many other aspects of our justice system. I have been heartsick since the trial. My experience is one more example of the often unintentional racial injustice embedded in our system.