Opinion: Daily Journal

WFU’s Jury Sunshine Project a valuable resource for informing voters

Residents soon will get voting guides. They may see sample ballots, or newspaper profiles. They’ll get fliers and postcards to recycle. Yard signs will become ubiquitous.

These will help, maybe. But they won’t be enough for voters to make an informed decision at the polls, unless, of course, they’re glued to a party.

Aside from that, it’s nice to know things, and that’s not so easy in a media environment, which can be good — because of myriad sources and outlets — or bad, because separating fact from opinion can be time-consuming and tedious.

And the General Assembly and governor aren’t exactly helping voters clear their minds. Trying to follow the daily machinations is like keeping score at a baseball game that has gone 20 innings. After a while, the scorecard is tough to decipher.

But voters have to try. The information is out there, and it’s incumbent on local newspaper reporters and editors, as well as radio and online outlets, to help people get that information.

Take, for instance, a study by Wake Forest University law professors Ron Wright, Kami Chavis, and Gregory Parks.

They, with the help of some 100 others, collected statistics about felony trial jury selection across all of North Carolina’s counties as part of his research regarding jury selection. It’s called the “Jury Sunshine Project.”

Voter turnout for midterm elections is rarely comparable to voting numbers during presidential elections and high-profile races for members of Congress or governors.

Because of the divisive political environment, this year may be different. Still, I think it’s safe to say, in general voters spend little time focusing on races for judgeships and district attorneys. That’s a bit unsettling, as the courts are a vital tenant to a functioning republic, to protecting our civil liberties, and to preserving our respective constitutions.

Judges oversee cases, which always involve people. Lawyers, including those chosen by district attorneys, select juries, composed of people. They choose jurors to keep or to dismiss and, again, the judge ultimately decides.

But, particularly in criminal cases, much of the power is left to the jury, which will decide the fate of, yes, another person. It’s an immense responsibility.

In a podcast interview with “Criminal Injustice,” Wright said, “I am interested in prosecutors and I am interested in who looks over their shoulders.”

The jury.

“It struck me as weird that prosecutors get to choose their own bosses.”

Wright said North Carolina already had similar research regarding death-penalty cases, but the Wake Forest researchers expanded that effort to include all criminal felony cases in the state.

“What we realized was this was the business of the public, this was the public courts, and we’re recording what happens, but we’re recording it on pieces of paper that live in the files of each of the county clerks in all 100 counties across the state. While you could … see what’s happening in one case, you can’t tell about the pattern of cases, you can’t tell what’s happening in all cases.”

Wright and his colleagues began building a database.

Granted, the researchers could see only what the clerk recorded, but in that they could learn why juries were removed and who removed which juror, and in what order.

“We had to work pretty hard to even know which files to ask for.”

The project beginning with data from 2011 examined 1,400 trials and 30,000 jurors.

Race, despite the negative constitutional implications, plays no small role in our system of justice, the researchers found.

“Race is relevant as the parties are deciding who’s going to stay on the jury and who’s not. It turns out prosecutors remove black jurors at about twice the rate that they remove white jurors. Vice versa, defense attorneys remove white jurors at about twice the rate they remove black or other minority jurors. Interestingly to me, judges remove black jurors at a somewhat higher rate than they remove white jurors, about 20 percent higher.


“I think both the defense attorney and the prosecutors are picking jurors they think are going to be friendlier to their view of the case. Their view, I think it’s probably correct, is that race has formed the views of the jurors about how they feel about police officers and about the state assembling a criminal case, so … it’s going to affect the way they act as jurors.”

The more white males that go on your jury, Wright told “Criminal Injustice,”  the more likely the jury is to reach a verdict of conviction.

A jury with all white males is more likely to convict any defendant, but the effect increases significantly if the defendant is a black male.

Conversely, more black males on the jury mean they’re less likely to convict.

“They’re more likely to acquit, and that’s true against all types of defendants. … More black males on the jury mean far more defense-friendly verdicts.”

More black women on a jury means it will lean toward acquittal. With more white women, though, the researchers found little racial effect.

“Intuitively,” he said, “lawyers know race has an impact on the jury’s ability to hear the case the way I want them to hear it, and they are selecting juries accordingly.”

Wright wants to further explore intrastate disparities. Why, for example, do some cities look different than others with similar populations?

“If a particular office is knocking certain parts of the community out of the jury on a systematic basis, we’d like them to explain why, much in the way we collect information about traffic stops.

“We need this to be a system by and for the people … a system everybody participates in. I’m  big fan of juries, but I’d like to see everybody participate.”

Data specific to counties and cities is available by emailing Wright or asking your local media outlets to request and publish it. It’s worth the effort.