Racial Discrimination Persists in California Jury Selection


A new study from the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic found that California prosecutors routinely strike Black and Latino prospective jurors—and the state’s appellate courts have failed to meaningfully address racial discrimination in jury selection.

It has been illegal for more than a century to remove a person from a jury because of their race, but people of color continue to be excluded from jury service because of their race, especially in serious criminal trials and death penalty cases.

Researchers at U.C. Berkeley conducted an empirical study examining nearly 700 cases decided by the California Courts of Appeal from 2006 through 2018. They found that prosecutors across California use peremptory strikes to disproportionately keep Black and Latino citizens off juries. The data showed that prosecutors used their peremptory strikes to remove Black jurors in nearly 72% of cases. They struck Latino jurors in about 28% of the cases, Asian American jurors in less than 3.5%, and white jurors in only 0.5%.

The study found that prosecutors disproportionately strike Black prospective jurors and justify those strikes because of the prospective jurors’ demeanor, appearance, distrust of the criminal legal system, relationship with someone who had a negative experience with law enforcement, and place of residence.

“Prosecutors in these cases successfully used their peremptory challenges against African Americans because they had dreadlocks, were slouching, wore a short skirt and ‘blinged out’ sandals, visited family members who were incarcerated, had negative experiences with law enforcement (often many years before they were called for jury duty), or lived in East Oakland, Los Angeles County’s Compton, or San Francisco’s Tenderloin,” the report said.

These reasons reflect racial bias, the report explains. For example, “[g]iven the history of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and the home-ownership gap between Blacks and whites, the neighborhood in which African Americans live highly correlates with racial stereotyping.”

Prosecutors in California are trained to “exploit the historic and present-day differential treatment of whites and people of color, especially African Americans and Latino people, by the police, prosecutors, and the courts,” the report said, by removing people who are less educated, blue collar or unemployed or underemployed, and those who have had or whose family has had negative experiences with law enforcement.

A handful of California judges have criticized the state courts’ failure to eliminate racial bias in jury selection, especially California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin H. Liu. The Los Angeles Times reported that Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye announced in January the creation of a jury selection work group to “study whether modifications or additional measures are needed to guard against impermissible discrimination in jury selection,” but the appointment of members to the group has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic report calls for a “decisive course correction that encompasses significant changes” to the procedure for evaluating claims of racial bias in jury selection.