I attended a murder trial last week. Not in any sort of official way, but simply as a learning experience. As a high school intern at Anderson Law in Kennewick, I have the opportunity to investigate law as a career. So, with the help of Anderson Law attorney Edwardo Morfin, I went to a superior court trial in Franklin County. Even though it wasn’t related to personal injury or car accidents, the trial was interesting and educational in many ways (especially since it was a murder trial). One thing in particular stood out to me: I noticed that the jury had significantly fewer Hispanics than Caucasians on it. There were two or three Hispanic jurors, but the majority of the jurors were Caucasian. Since the defendant was also Hispanic, I wondered if this was truly a jury of his peers. Although I do not believe this was indicative of jury selection bias, it made me think about the importance of jury diversity, and how maybe it isn’t being addressed enough. A lack of diverse juries, and potential racial bias, have been a problem in the American courtroom for a long time. Although American demographics have changed substantially, and race relations seem to be better than they ever have been, there is still much room for improvement.
The potential that a racially biased jury could completely ignore the evidence presented in court, and instead make judgments simply based on skin color or place of origin, is frightening. A historical example of such bias was the heinous trial of J.W Milam and Roy Bryant, the murderers of Emmett Till. If you are only vaguely familiar with the circumstances surrounding this trial, allow me to help you recall what happened. Emmett Till was a black 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was visiting his relatives in Mississippi. Till had visited a store in town with some of his friends, and when he was leaving the store, he reportedly attempted to flirt with Carolyn Bryant, the wife of Roy Bryant, owner of the store. Several days later, Bryant and his half-brother J.W Milam took Till from his home and viciously beat him, before shooting him and dumping his body in the river. Later, during trial, although a large amount of evidence and several witnesses confirmed that Till had last been seen with the two men, Milam and Bryant were acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury. They later publicly admitted to being behind the killing. Till and the injustice of the trial became fuses that lit the fire of the Civil Rights Movement.
Although this kind of atrocity is unlikely to happen in today’s society, the tragedy of Emmett Till is a reminder of what can happen when prejudice is left unchecked. There is a plethora of smaller incidents across the nation that are the result of similar prejudice. The law can never truly remove all bias or bigotry; however, we can do more to ensure that an ethnically diverse jury is present in the courtroom. This is an important issue that is being addressed in Franklin County, and I hope I am bringing a small amount of awareness to the community. Of course, I’m just one 17-year-old intern at a law firm who may not be able to convince you of anything. But I hope I’ve caused you to think about what you can do to help.
– Aja George, Anderson Law intern