Jan 13, 2009

Leaner, Meaner Juries?


Are fat jurors prone to favoring defendants? So claimed a New York prosecutor a few years ago, who challenged an obese juror's impartiality and kicked her off a jury panel on the ground that fat people are biased towards defendants. The problem is that both the potential juror and the defendant were African-American, and the juror's dismissal resulted in the defendant being tried and convicted by an all-white jury.  

Lawyers are not allowed to exclude jurors based on their race. When claims of race-based challenges arise, lawyers have to offer "race-neutral" explanations for excluding jurors. Trial judges are supposed to evaluate the explanations to make sure that they are not meaningless pretexts. In the case now pending in federal court, the trial judge accepted the prosecutor's explanation and an appeals court has asked another trial judge to reconsider the validity of the challenge.

I doubt that a link between weight and defense-mindedness has ever been scientifically established. But the right of lawyers to challenge and exclude potential jurors is based on their ability to use their intuition and personal experience to exclude people they believe will side with their adversaries. If courts go too far in demanding that lawyers prove that challenges are based on proven facts, they will undermine one of the tenets of our lawyer-centric adversarial system.