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The Daily Tar Heel

Study Finds No Racial Bias in Jury Verdicts

UNC law professors John Conley and Bill Turnier and Chicago psychologist Mary Rose conducted a study that found white and black jurors hand down nearly identical verdicts.

The study lasted nearly two years and used 600 actual jurors from Wake and Alamance counties. The jurors passed verdicts after watching tapes of staged trials of vandalism cases that employed lawyers and a judge as well as other stand-ins.

Vandalism was specifically chosen as the crime in this study because it is not closely associated to race nor does it elicit a strong emotional response.

"The first thing we found was that there was no knee-jerk bias," Conley said, referring to the absence of a direct relationship in jurors' minds between the defendant's race and their verdict.

But Turnier said that, despite what seems to be a lack of bias in the study's results, it can not be used to dismiss the presence of bias in the justice system.

"The study doesn't definitively establish that there is no bias," Turnier said. "One thing it does tell us is that in a low-profile traditional case, people of different races reach close to identical verdicts."

When the courtroom was a racially mixed environment, the jury found the same percentage of blacks guilty as whites.

Conley said when the defendant was isolated against a white prosecutor and white witnesses, the jurors seemed to feel the situation was unfair. In such situations, the jury found whites guilty 55 percent of the time and blacks 35 percent of the time.

Conley attributed the disparity between the apparent importance of the defendant's race taken by itself and that of its relation to the racial composition of the courtroom to the idea of racial relativity.

Turnier elaborated, saying when a black defendant stuck out in a courtroom full of whites, his race seemed much more important to the jury than when other blacks were mixed into the court scene.

Robert Allen, a Northwestern University political science professor, said that while the results of the study did not surprise him, the justice system is not free from racial bias.

"I very much doubt that any institution is completely free from racial impulses," Allen said. "But juries try to do their job and usually they do it well."

He also said the real concern in the justice system is the actions of law enforcement officials early in the process. Allen said even if jurors and prosecutors do their jobs correctly, racial bias could still exist if blacks are arrested or prosecuted more often than whites.

Turnier said he undertook the study to discover the amount of truth behind the widely publicized theory that verdicts were racially motivated. "During the O.J. (Simpson) trial, you heard the speculation on TV that given the racial composition of the jury, it was a foregone conclusion he would get off," he said.

Simpson was tried for the murder of his former wife Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman and found innocent by a mostly black jury.

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