Posted on June 14, 2007

Ethnic Minority Jurors Favour Black Defendants ‘To Level Playing Field’

Sarah Hall, Guardian (Manchester), June 13, 2007

Black and ethnic minority jurors show more leniency to black defendants than their white counterparts in court, research commissioned by the Ministry of Justice revealed yesterday.

The first study to look at how race affects verdicts in this country has found that black and minority ethnic (BME) jurors are “significantly less likely” to convict a black defendant than a white defendant on a non-race-related charge.

And they are much more likely to convict white defendants than white jurors.

This apparent bias—described by the report’s researchers as “same race leniency”—is thought to reflect a belief among black and Asian jurors that the court system treats ethnic minority defendants more harshly than their white counterparts. Jurors attempt to compensate for this perceived bias to create a “level playing field”, the report notes.

Cheryl Thomas, professor of empirical legal studies at University College, London, who conducted the research at the University of Birmingham, said: “We asked jurors their attitudes towards various aspects of the criminal justice system. BME jurors felt very strongly that the courts treated BME defendants more harshly than white, and it was clear black jurors felt this more strongly than Asian jurors.”

She said this might explain why black and Asian jurors showed leniency towards a black defendant but not an Asian defendant. But the research found the attitude of individual BME jurors did not alter the overall outcome of the trial.

In a study involving 27 simulated trials where the racial make-up of the defendant, victim and jurors was varied, defendants were almost always found not guilty by a majority verdict.

The report notes that this proves the value of a 12-juror system, in which no verdict can be reached unless 10 agree. “This indicates that individual biases were not able to dictate the decision-making of racially mixed juries,” it adds.

However, it says conviction rates at one London court where there is a high proportion of black and Asian jurors—usually three or four out of 12—are low compared with areas with few BME jurors.

The research, commissioned in June 2002 in response to the Macpherson report into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, involved a study using case simulation as well as an analysis of jury verdicts in 186 cases in three different crown courts.

In the case simulation 27 juries of 319 jurors, all of whom had already sat at Blackfriars crown court, watched a film of a case in which a defendant was charged with actual bodily harm (ABH). Elements were altered for different juries: the race of the defendant, the race of the victim and whether the charge was racially motivated.

In the non-race related scenario only 12% of BME jurors found BME defendants guilty, compared with 26% of white jurors. But 59% of BME jurors found white defendants guilty compared with 33% of white jurors.

This suggests white jurors also showed “same race leniency” in this instance.

When the ABH was racially aggravated, however, white jurors were almost as likely as BME jurors to convict white defendants (63% compared to 67%) and no bias was shown in conviction rates for BME defendants. Prof Thomas said: “When race is overt and conscious [in a racially motivated case] white jurors and BME jurors show no significant difference in the way they treat the defendants.”

Speaking at the report’s launch, Trevor Phillips, of the Commission for Racial Equality, said: “The system can have biases even though it’s populated by people of great goodwill. In this case one of the biases clearly emerges because most jurors think the system is geared against black defendants. This is a bias we want to avoid as much as we want to avoid a bias in favour of white defendants.”

The lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, said the study was encouraging. “It strongly suggests that juries and the jury system are working and working well.”

The researchers will now look at how all-white juries treat BME defendants.