John Oliver Breaks Down How the Jury System Is Broken and Racist on Last Week Tonight
John Oliver has taken on the monumental task of using his platform to explain many elements of systematic racism to his audience—this week, how juries are super biased and often exclude people of color by design.
While there are many shows, podcasts, and writers who have done the same, with Oliver being a charming white British man who is proud of his owl-like visage, he no doubt reaches a part of the country that wouldn’t be reading The New York Times’ “1619 Project” or listening to some of the true-crime investigative journalism that he synthesizes into digestible segments.
As someone who has felt like being a part of jury duty was my civic responsibility after watching Twelve Angry Men, there is no denying that the system already disenfranchises those working paycheck-to-paycheck because the monetary compensation you get for jury duty doesn’t make up your lost day of pay. Despite the right to a trial by a jury of your peers being in the Constitution, the fact is that the systems in play do not often want a jury actually made up that way.
Oliver explains how, in several systems meant to make it easier for “random” people to be called in for jury duty, those systems can still leave out Black and Latinx people. If the jury records are based on DMV records or voting registration, that ignores a huge swath of people who aren’t registered to vote and don’t have cars. One of the people in the clip, William Snowden, explains that if you apply that system to a place like New Orleans, you are excluding “around 35 percent” of people.
People with felony convictions are often excluded, and sometimes prosecutors purposefully try to get Black jurors taken off of cases because of the assumption that they are inherently biased. Oliver brings up the Curtis Flowers cases, which I became familiar with through the podcast In the Dark. Curtis Flowers was tried six times for a crime because, several times, it was found that the prosecutor, Doug Evans, attempted to keep Black jurors off the trial. Studies have shown that gaps in conviction rates between white and Black defendants can be pretty much eliminated when each jury includes just one Black member. That is a daunting reality about what this system is like, and it is deeply chilling.
Trial by jury is already hard. You are getting a group of people with no legal experience and asking them to decide the fate of individuals based on their understanding of the case. They don’t know what is excluded or happening behind the scenes or what was thrown out, and most people trust testimony from experts, though it may be flawed. If the system purposefully keeps out smarter people and BIPOC, and systematically keeps out poor people, then we aren’t actually having our constitutional rights met.
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