Bias in United States Courtrooms By Anay Laddha

Could there be a connection between a classic novel, a teenager from Chicago, and a Supreme Court case? The answer is yes and this connection will be examined by analyzing three texts. The first text being analyzed in this paper is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. In addition is a biography of a fourteen year old named Emmett Till who was murdered in the Jim Crow South, and an article in The Washington Post describing an account of racism in the jury panel of a Supreme Court case. These three texts all relate back to the central theme of prejudice and discrimination in courtrooms across America, past and present.

Emmett Till, a young black man who was murdered.

Emmett Till’s jury panel and Tom Robinson’s jury panel both clearly had biased, racist jurors that had no regard for the evidence of the case. Atticus’s gives his thoughts about jurors when he says to the jury panel in To Kill a Mockingbird, “Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up” (Lee 274). The jurors selected for a case are supposed to be unbiased with no prejudice about the case whatsoever. Atticus is reminding the jurors that the fate of the defendant depends on the jurors’ decisions making them the most important people in the courtroom. He identifies the problem with Tom Robinson’s jury panel in that it was comprised of all white farmers who clearly would have a bias as most farmers in Alabama at the time were slave owners. This biased jury is nearly identical to the one in Emmett Till’s murder case. After the men who kidnapped and killed Till for flirting with a white women were identified and the facts were laid out the jurors had to come to a decision. According to the article “After four days of testimony and a little more than an hour of deliberation, an all-white, all-male jury (at the time, blacks and women were not allowed to serve as jurors in Mississippi) acquitted Bryant and Milam of all charges” (Ray 1). The entirely southern white jury panel didn’t spend very long pondering the decision and came to a conclusion quite heavily influenced by their individual biases.

J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, Emmett Till's killers laugh after being acquitted.

The truth is the United States jury system is far from perfect. The fact that an innocent person’s life could be at stake based on the jury’s decisions is a tough one to swallow. In To Kill a Mockingbird when Jem asks Atticus why the jury system can’t be removed altogether Atticus responds with “If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom would be a free man...So far nothing in your life has interfered with your reasoning process. Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’s jury, but you saw something come between them and reason...In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life” (Lee 295). Atticus testifies to the phenomena of how a southern white man in the novel who is normally clear headed can suddenly change their whole personalities and morals if a black man is involved. Atticus believes that when a southern white man gets on a jury panel for a case with a African-American person, it hinders his ability to think straight and consider the evidence. This topic can be compared to a Supreme Court case which may be retried because of a juror’s racist comments. In 2007 a Mexican man named Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez was convicted by Colorado prosecutors of sexual assault with less than substantial evidence. A couple years later some of the jurors came out and told the defense attorney that “a juror said he thought that Peña Rodriguez was guilty of sexual assault because he was Mexican and that “Mexican men take whatever they want” (Barnes 1). That juror obviously had a bias against Mexican men from the origin which affected his decision and could have severely negatively impacted Pena-Rodriguez’s life. As hard as they try attorneys and judges across the U.S will never be able to pick a completely unbiased jury.

The Supreme Court in Washington D.C.

To conclude, racism is without a doubt present in courtrooms across the U.S. in the past and the present. The U.S. Justice system is the foundation of our democracy in the sense that anyone who steps in a courtroom should be treated equally and judged on hard facts rather than preexisting bias. Atticus summarizes this when he says, “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box” (Lee 295). This will end when as a nation stereotypes against certain groups of people are eliminated. Only thing is, how long will it take?

Pena-Rodriguez after being convicted for 3 misdemeanors.

Works Cited

Barnes, Robert. "Racial Bias in the Jury Room Can Violate a Defendant's Right to a Fair Trial, Supreme Court Says." The Washington Post. WP Company, 06 Mar. 2017. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

Ray, Michael. "Emmett Till." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 29 Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1960. Print.

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