Dateline: December, 2006, Issue 1

How does mentioning racial bias in voir dire affect juror decision-making?

The O.J. Simpson trial spawned extensive discussion of "playing the race card." Racial issues arise in America's courtrooms every day, and attorneys must decide whether to raise the racial issue or leave it unstated.

A recent study by Sommers (2006) examined the effect that asking about racial biases in voir dire had on determinations of guilt of a black defendant. Racial issues were raised in jury selection through the use of a juror questionnaire. All jurors completed a juror questionnaire, with half completing a version that also asked 4 questions about racial biases:

After completing the juror questionnaire, jurors were shown a 30-minute Court TV video summary of the trial of a black defendant charged with a sexual assault. The trial video included highlights from opening statements, testimony of seven prosecution and three defense witnesses, and closing arguments.

The research found that fewer jurors voted guilty when the issue of racial bias was raised during voir dire than when it was left unstated. While 41% of all jurors voted guilty just before deliberations started, only 34% of jurors who were asked questions about race did so compared to 47% who were not asked questions about race. The researchers concluded that raising blatant racial issues at trial increases leniency toward a black defendant.

Interestingly, prior to filling out the questionnaire during voir dire, jurors had been assigned to homogeneous (all-white) or racially mixed (4 white, 2 black) juries. Asking questions about race reduced guilty verdicts for both homogeneous (all white) and racially mixed (4 white, 2 blacks) juries.

Source Sommers, S. R. (2006). On racial diversity and group decision making: Identifying multiple effects of racial composition on jury deliberations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, pp. 597-612.