Bias in the Jury Box?

By Richard Morin
Sunday, March 21, 2004; Page B05
The Washington Post
washingtonpost.com

Racially prejudiced people are more likely to end up as jurors in death penalty cases and also more likely to say they would feel worse about letting a murderer go free than they would about convicting an innocent defendant -- two reasons why blacks are overrepresented on Death Row, claims sociologist Robert L. Young of the University of Texas at Arlington.

"By allowing juries in capital cases to be stacked in favor of conviction, the courts have created a system in which certain defendants -- especially those of African American descent -- in essence must prove their innocence beyond a reasonable doubt," Young contends in the latest issue of the journal Deviant Behavior. "Unfortunately, because most death-penalty defendants are indigent, poorly educated and poorly represented, the chances of that are typically quite slim."

Young analyzed data from the 1990 and 1996 General Social Survey, the leading barometer of social trends in the nation. The annual poll is conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The survey asks people whether they support or oppose the death penalty, a question similar to one that prosecutors use to screen prospective jurors in capital punishment cases. If you say you're opposed, prosecutors typically send you on your way, leaving a pool of jurors who support capital punishment or aren't opposed to it, Young says.

Young wondered if people who favored the death penalty were more predisposed toward conviction than others or more likely to hold prejudiced views of blacks, who comprise the majority of defendants in murder cases. The GSS allowed him to address both issues. One series of questions sought to measure racial prejudice by asking respondents whether they believed blacks were "lazy" or "hard-working," and how respondents would feel if a close relative married a black person. Another question asked whether it was a bigger mistake to convict an innocent person or to free someone who was guilty, one way of measuring what social scientists call a "conviction mentality."

Young found that death penalty supporters were more likely to have prejudiced views of blacks -- about a third more likely, he estimates.

He also found that death penalty supporters were nearly twice as likely to say it was worse to let the guilty go than to convict an innocent defendant. Based on other GSS data, Young suggests that this attitude is motivated by a view of human nature that sees people generally as untrustworthy and out to take advantage of others. Those characteristics reinforce each other, he argues, making death penalty juries more conviction-prone, particularly when the defendant is black.

Researchers have provided evidence for years that the criminal justice system isn't infallible. A 1996 study estimated there are about 10,000 "erroneous" convictions a year involving serious crimes listed in the FBI index -- less than a 1 percent overall error rate, but in absolute numbers, a lot of cases. Another researcher found that between 1973 and 1997, one-third of the 6,139 individuals sentenced to death had their convictions overturned later. And exonerations of 13 death row inmates in Illinois between 1977 and 2000 prompted that state's governor, George Ryan (R), to declare a moratorium on executions.

So what does Young think should be done? He says we might want to leave sentencing decisions to judges or create more balanced juries, either by excluding people who are strongly for or against the death penalty, or by allowing foes of capital punishment to serve, too.

Less Passion, Please

All the talk about how Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" would fan the fires of anti-Semitism may be so much hot air. Instead of inciting anger toward Jewish people, the movie may be reducing religious hostilities, a new poll suggests.

"While the film may have an impact elsewhere in the world, so far 'The Passion of the Christ' is not producing any significant anti-Jewish backlash" here, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, which commissioned the poll.

More than 1,000 randomly selected adults were surveyed by telephone after the movie opened in early March. Among those who had seen the film or were familiar with it, more than eight in 10 said it had no effect on how they feel about Jewish people.

Two percent said the film made them more likely to hold today's Jews responsible for the death of Christ, but 9 percent said the film made them less likely to. While some people probably aren't being entirely candid, the magnitude of those numbers is heartening. Most religiously intolerant people aren't shy about expressing their opinions, pollsters have found.

"The questions raised about the anti-Jewish images in the movie helped bring the question of the role of Jews in the death of Christ out in the open," Tobin said in a statement released with the survey results. "It is better to have dialogue and honest discussion, and trust that the bond between Christians and Jews in America is strong."

Good News About No-Fault

In the past three decades, liberalized divorce laws have reduced suicides among women, sparked a dramatic reduction in domestic violence and led to a decline in women murdered by their partners, according to economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers.

Specifically, they claim, these benefits have resulted from the adoption of so-called "no-fault" divorce laws, in which one partner can end the marriage without the consent of the other.

After states adopted no-fault divorce laws, suicides among women dropped by 20 percent, the rate of domestic abuse fell by a third, and the number of women murdered by their partners dropped by about 10 percent, Stevenson and Wolfers found.

Adoption of unilateral divorce laws didn't affect the suicide rate of men or the likelihood that they would be murdered by their partners. But domestic violence directed at both men and women declined, the researchers reported in a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.

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