Bias in the Jury Box?
By Richard Morin
Sunday, March 21, 2004; Page B05
The Washington Post
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 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
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
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
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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