Brow Beat

John Oliver Shows How Racism Creeps Into Every Part of the Jury Selection Process

John Oliver continued his examination into the ways that racism is baked into the criminal justice system in this week’s main segment of Last Week Tonight, turning his attention to everyone’s favorite civic duty. While the right to a trial by a jury of your peers is enshrined in the Sixth Amendment, “the truth is that people of color are routinely excluded,” Oliver said, citing a study from the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies that says that “underrepresentation of the Latino and African-American populations is ubiquitous.” Lack of diversity on juries has far-ranging ramifications, not least because studies show that gaps in the conviction rates between white and Black defendants were eliminated when the jury pool included just one Black member.

Over the course of the segment, Oliver detailed how jury selection excludes people of color from the very beginning of the process. Jury selection computer programs, which are often created by private companies that insist their algorithms are proprietary, can make mistakes as hilarious as calling a 9-year-old in for jury duty twice to ones as sinister as excluding 63 percent of eligible Black jurors from the pool due to a coding error. Because 39 out of 50 states provide no access to jury data, “no one knows how common [these mistakes] are,” Oliver said. “So your court system might have a massive problem and until a 9-year-old shows up for a murder trial, no one would have any idea.”

And that’s all before potential jurors even show up to court, where prosecutors tend to exclude Black jurors. Oliver cited the recently overturned conviction of Curtis Flowers in Mississippi where a white district attorney got rid of 41 of 42 prospective Black jurors over six different triaIs, a move so racist that even Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh couldn’t excuse it: “You know you’re doing something wrong when it’s so flagrant that even Brett Kavanaugh has a problem with it, a man who has done exactly two good things in his life: this decision and making it acceptable to spend your entire job interview screaming and crying.”