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Co-written by Alana Glover


Every year, Americans 18 and older go to the ballot box to elect individuals who will represent them, govern them and, on occasion, directly vote on legislation. Americans vote under trust and understanding that their vote directly impacts their daily lives. This is the promise of a democratic institution. When Americans do not see their engagement eliciting direct change, they become disenfranchised.

In a study done by FiveThirtyEight, Americans of all ages are not showing up to the polls. Sadly, but to no surprise, one of the participants explained, “no matter who wins, nothing will change for people like me.” But Americans are not only disenfranchised by voting. Americans are disinterested in all aspects of the democratic process, specifically relating to civic duties such as jury service. Although jury service might seem dull, it might be the most direct form of civic engagement.

A vote might elect a representative that has the potential to make change. However, serving as one out of six or 12 jurors who decide the fate of our fellow Americans every day, in every locality across the United States, directly impacts an individual’s life in your community.

In the same way Black voters and people of color have been historically oppressed when it comes to casting a ballot, they are also discriminated against in the criminal justice system, specifically due to the biased jury selection process. These two trends are intrinsically linked, as the suppression of Black people at the ballot box directly correlates to the incarceration of Black people in the court system.

The criminal justice system and the election process have always been intertwined. One way is through felon disenfranchisement. The Sentencing Project reports that [as of 2016] “6.1 million Americans were prohibited from voting due to laws that disenfranchise citizens convicted of felony offenses.” If this population was one state, it would be the 19th largest state in the country — about as large as the state of Maryland, with a population of around 6.055 million, or Missouri, with a population close to 6.151 million people.

Another connection is the link between voting roles and jury pools. Typically, in order to be considered to serve as a juror, you must be an active voter in your community. However, as stated above, voter suppression efforts of communities of color throughout the country are at an all-time high. Therefore, the same juries that lead to felon disenfranchisement are often made up of individuals that are not from the communities of the people they convict. Furthermore, Black people and people of color, who are eligible to serve as a juror, may be hesitant to participate in jury service because of the distrust that these communities hold in the criminal justice system.

History has shown that the criminal justice system was not designed to protect people of color. In an article entitled, “Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice,” the American Bar Association highlighted that “although Black people make up 13.4% of the population, they make up 22% of fatal police shootings, 47% of wrongful conviction exonerations and 35% of individuals executed by the death penalty.”

In cases where people from diverse communities are willing and qualified to participate in juries, they are denied access. Although the 1875 Civil Rights Act outlawed race-based discrimination when selecting jury members, the illegal exclusion of minorities continues to this very day.

The Equal Justice Initiative created a report analyzing the jury selection process in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. The report found evidence of instances “where prosecutors have excluded nearly 80% of African Americans qualified for jury service.” According to the report, this race-based exclusion is often concealed by attorneys requesting to exclude jurors, for reasons such as a potential juror wearing glasses, being single or married, or by claiming a juror is “too old for jury service at age 43 or too young at 28.” The report also highlighted that some attorneys go as far as excluding a juror solely because they have a family member that attended a historically Black college or university, better recognized as an HBCU.

However, under these hidden reasons used to exclude jurors, the exclusions are still considered “race-neutral” challenges. As a result of these practices, members of diverse communities typically are not represented in jury pools in courts across the U.S. Whether a person of color, sits in court as a criminal defendant or a victim of a case involving police brutality, they are less likely to have their case plead to a jury of their peers. Here, we emphasize peers because in reality, for many Black defendants, victims and people of color generally involved in judicial proceedings, a jury of their peers rarely exists in this country.

We only have to look to the recent Derek Chauvin case to see the importance of diverse juries. According to the Chicago Tribune, the 12 jurors who held Chauvin accountable and found him guilty of all three charges brought against him were “a racially diverse group.” Six of the jurors identified as white and six identified as Black or multiracial. Seven were women and five were men.

Compare this case to the outcome of Emmitt Till in 1955, in the murder trial against Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam. An all-white, male jury returned a verdict of not guilty, in a murder case with overwhelming evidence that the two men brutally murdered a 14-year-old Black boy.

Or we can even look to the case of the four officers who brutally beat Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991. Like the case against Chauvin, the acts of the four officers were caught on video. After a contentious jury selection process, a jury of five men and seven women were selected to serve — and none of them were Black. All four officers were charged with assault with the use of a deadly weapon and excessive use of force. On April 29, 1992, the 12-person jury found the four officers not guilty, except for one assault charge against one of the officers that ended in a hung jury.

We can also look to the George Zimmerman case in the murder of Trayvon Martin. In the 2013 case against George Zimmerman, the jury consisted of six women. Five of the jurors identified as white and one was a woman of color. Similar to the holding of the Emmitt Till and the Rodney King case, Zimmerman was found not guilty.

Although these cases took place over 60 years, with each case being more than 20 years apart, the outcome did not quite change. Interestingly, nor did the makeup of the jury. As we review the lack of diversity on juries throughout history and the unfortunate decisions those juries made, it is clear the diverse makeup of the jury in the case against Chauvin directly led to the former officer being held accountable for the murder of George Floyd.

On April 28, 2021, one of the six jurors in the Chauvin trial, a 31-year-old Black male by the name of Brandon Mitchell, spoke to ABC News. During the interview, Mitchell explained that he and the rest of the jurors did not watch the news during the trial and that the outside views at the time did not directly affect the juror’s decisions. He also made clear that based on his experience in this trial, he believes that it is extremely important for people of color, especially Black men, to show up for jury duty. Mitchell stated that “in order for change to happen … we have to get into those rooms, we have to show up for jury duty, [and] we have to vote.”

Mitchell emphasized that if we “want to start to see different results, we have to start to do those things … we cannot avoid them, we cannot put them on the back burner, we have to put them in the forefront.” In a recent event hosted by the Andrew Goodman Alumni Association, Portsmouth, Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, Stephanie N. Morales, made a similar point. She stated that by participating in jury service “members of the community get to make a difference.” She emphasized that we do not talk enough about the importance of jury service and that members of diverse communities should try to be “willing and ready” to participate in the process. Commonwealth’s Attorney Morales also explained that diversity in juries is important because jurors typically act based on their “own lived experiences,” and oftentimes those lived experiences are not always those of diverse communities.

In modern media, jury duty is often played for comedy. From *Curb Your Enthusiasm to *Martin to *Insecure, jury duty is often framed as something to get out of or avoid. While it is alright to laugh at these jokes, it is important that we do not take this sentiment to real life. Every day, the futures of thousands of Americans are left in the hands of jurors, and it is up to us to be ready and willing to serve as jurors in these cases. This is a right we must fight for, because just like voting rights, this is a right that many are seeking to take away, especially for communities of color.

We have seen from cases, like the Derrick Chauvin case, that a jury of diverse community members can help justice prevail. It is necessary when we have conversations about the importance of civic engagement and societal change that we highlight the need for policies and to mobilize as a community in ways that don’t only address voter suppression and discriminatory justice practices but also how they intersect. A call for the end of voter suppression is just a step towards a more fair and just society. We must also be vigilant about how, we as members of the community, can fight systemic injustice by participating and fighting for our right to complete our civic duties, such as serving as jurors.


Alana Glover currently serves as a Law Clerk on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and as a Writer in Residence for Ms. JD, a national nonprofit, dedicated to the success of women lawyers.

Evan Wayne Malbrough is the campus coordinator for the Georgia Civic Campus Network and a 2020–2021 Puffin Democracy fellow.