John Oliver highlights racial bias in jury selection ‘so flagrant even Brett Kavanaugh has a problem with it’

"I'd love to tell you mistakes like these are rare, but the truth is, no one knows how common they are."

Over the years, John Oliver has shown audiences the inequities of the U.S. justice system, piece by piece, on “Last Week Tonight.” In the past, he’s done deep dives into immigration courts, the bail system, and mandatory minimum sentencing, among other justice-related topics. This week, Oliver took a look at juries and how unchecked selection policies and actions have had a disproportionate effect on Black defendants and potential jurors.

Oliver began by citing a 2018 study that showed “ubiquitous” underrepresentation of Black and Latino people on juries. He then showed video of Tufts professor Sam Sommers, who said that racially diverse juries “operated more fairly and deliberated more comprehensively.”

Advertisement

“In this study, [diverse juries] raised more facts from the trial, they discuss a broader range of information,” Sommers said. “They discuss the information more accurately, actually, in discussing the facts of the case. They’re more willing to have uncomfortable conversations about controversial issues, like those involving race and racial profiling.”

Oliver also cited issues in Connecticut, where computer errors caused everyone from Hartford and New Britain to be excluded from jury duty selection for three years. That meant 63 percent of the Black voting-age people and 68 percent of Hispanic voting-age people in those districts were not summoned for juries during those three years, Oliver said.

Connecticut wasn’t alone in these issues. Oliver cited systemic problems faced by districts in Oklahoma and Indiana where 90 percent and 75 percent of Black residents, respectively, were excluded from jury selection.

“I’d love to tell you mistakes like these are rare, but the truth is, no one knows how common they are,” Oliver said, noting that information about these errors were only revealed by lawsuits, and that “39 of 50 states provide no public access to jury data.”

Oliver also highlighted active bias on the part of prosecutors, who a New York Times report found excluded Black voters based on frivolous reasons that included “young or old, single or divorced, religious or not, failed to make eye contact, lived in a poor part of town, had served in the military, had a hyphenated last name, displayed bad posture, were sullen, disrespectful or talkative, had long hair, wore a beard.”

Advertisement

Oliver also highlighted the recent case of Curtis Flowers, whose murder case in Mississippi appeared before the Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that District Attorney Doug Evans had violated the Constitution, with Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh writing that Evans had “waged a relentless determined effort to rid the jury of Black individuals,” removing 41 of 42 prospective Black jurors over the course of Flowers’ six trials.

“You know you’re doing something wrong when it’s so flagrant even Brett Kavanaugh has a problem with it,” Oliver said.

Oliver concluded the segment by calling for changes and greater transparency in the jury selection process.

“We are making a mockery of the phrase ‘a jury of your peers,'” Oliver said. “Because who exactly is the ‘you’ there? The defendant’s peers? Or the prosecutor’s peers? That’s a pretty big difference. And as we’ve seen, the impact of having people in a jury room who can speak to what being Black in America is like and how that might affect your relationship to law enforcement can be hugely beneficial.

Get Boston.com's browser alerts:

Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.

Turn on notifications

Great, you’re signed up!

Jump To Comments
Love Letters
How important is timing?
September 24, 2020 | 8:59 AM
Love Letters
He drifts in and out
September 21, 2020 | 8:56 AM