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Race Seems to Play An Increasing Role in Many Jury Verdicts

October 4, 1995

The evidence against Davon Neverdon seemed overwhelming.

Four eyewitnesses testified that they saw him kill a man in a robbery attempt. Two others said he told them he committed the crime. Even Mr. Neverdon was expecting to be convicted: He had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a 40-year sentence, a deal the prosecutor had rejected at the request of the victim’s family.

But that wasn’t how the Baltimore jury, which included 11 African-Americans, saw it. After 11 hours of deliberation, they acquitted the defendant, who is black. A note from the jury room before the July 28 verdict suggested an explanation for the contrarian result: ``Race,″ the lone Asian-American juror informed the judge, ``may be playing some part″ in the jury’s decision-making.

Commentators have warned during the year-long ordeal of the O.J. Simpson case _ which ended in not-guilty verdicts Tuesday _ that a juror’s race doesn’t dictate his or her verdict, and that evidence matters more than skin color.

But, increasingly, jury watchers are concluding that, as in the Neverdon case, race plays a far more significant role in jury verdicts than many people involved in the justice system prefer to acknowledge. And rather than condemn this influence, some legal scholars argue that it fits neatly into a tradition of political activism by U.S. juries.

The case of Darryl Smith in 1990 is a less celebrated, but perhaps more telling, example of how race can affect a criminal trial. After an all-black jury in Washington acquitted Mr. Smith of murder in March 1990, a letter from an anonymous juror arrived at the superior court there. The letter said that while most jurors in the case believed Mr. Smith was guilty, the majority bowed to holdouts who ``didn’t want to send anymore Young Black Men to Jail.″

With as many as half of young black men under the supervision of the criminal-justice system in some cities, ``African-American jurors are doing a cost-benefit analysis,″ says Paul Butler, a black criminal-law professor at George Washington University. Many black jurors have determined, he adds, that ``defendants are better off out of jail, even though they’re clearly guilty.″

The phenomenon of raced-based verdicts isn’t limited to blacks, of course. In past years, all-white juries, particularly in the South, nearly always convicted blacks accused of crimes against whites, regardless of the evidence _ while whites who raped or lynched blacks went free. In death-penalty cases, white jurors frequently refuse to send whites to death row for murdering blacks. When Los Angeles police officers charged in the videotaped beating of Rodney King were acquitted in Simi Valley, Calif., in 1992, many observers attributed the verdict to the fact that 10 of the jurors were white and none were black.

But the willingness of many blacks, in particular, to side with African-American defendants against a mostly white-dominated justice system is a relatively new phenomenon with specific roots and ramifications, according to researchers who have analyzed recent jury verdicts.

At the simplest level, they say, minority jurors are merely drawing on their own life experiences, as jurors are expected to do, in evaluating evidence. Based on such experiences, they are quicker than whites to suspect racism on the part of police and prosecutors and thus more likely than whites to distrust the evidence they present. Indeed, a recent USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll found that 66 percent of blacks believe the criminal-justice system is racist, compared with 37 percent of whites. This disparity inevitably affects deliberations.

But some black jurors are quietly taking a further, much more significant step: They are choosing to disregard the evidence, however powerful, because they seek to protest racial injustice and to refrain from adding to the already large number of blacks behind bars.

Most black jurors ``understand how fine the line is between doing well and being on trial,″ says Thomas I. Atkins, a defense lawyer who is former general counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. For many blacks, he says, ``it’s not enough to merely conclude that the right person is on trial and that the evidence is sufficient. You also have to prove that the right thing to come out of this trial is a conviction.″

The race factor seems particularly evident in such urban environments as the New York City borough of the Bronx, where juries are more than 80 percent black and Hispanic. There, black defendants are acquitted in felony cases 47.6 percent of the time _ nearly three times the national acquittal rate of 17 percent for all races. Hispanics are acquitted 37.6 percent of the time. This is so even though the majority of crime victims in the Bronx are black or Hispanic.


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