Influence of ethnicity on courtroom proceedings and judicial practices
Recent reports have indicated that cases of jury nullification based on the racial or ethnic background are on the rise. Rush (2000) defines jury nullification as, “A jury who believes that the defendant is guilty of the charges but for their reasons have decided to hand out a non-guilty verdict.”
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There are cases where juries in the United States have acquitted the accused even after sufficient evidence has been presented. This may be traced back to the racial discrimination that had been witnessed in this country for several centuries. For instance, in the years preceding 1950s, when a white was convicted for having assaulted a black or committed any crime against races that were considered inferior, it was very likely that the jury would acquit him or her of the crime based on the race.
This was because most of the jurists were whites, and they believed that whites had the freedom to treat other races the way they pleased. This means that they would ignore the evidence presented in the court and issue a ‘not-guilty’ verdict. In contemporary society, this vice is still witnessed in various courtrooms.
There are cases where African Americans have been acquitted of their crimes just because the jurists are fellow African Americans. This acquittal would come despite the clear evidence given by the prosecution supporting the fact that a crime was committed. It is true that judicial practices are heavily influenced by ethnicity (McNamara & Burns, 2009).
Summary of the argument for and against ethnicity-based jury nullification
Some people have come out to condemn ethnicity-based jury nullification while others have supported it. Those who are opposed to ethnicity-based jury nullification and those in support have given different reasons for their stand. Those opposing ethnicity-based jury nullifications have claimed that this practice is denying other citizens of this country justice. According to Rush (2000), this country has taken a long path to achieving equality among all races.
This path towards racial equality had many huddles, and many lives were lost while many people suffered to ensure that equality amongst all Americans is achieved. This means that every citizen of this country should not be judged based on the race, skin color, religion, or any other demographical differences, but their character.
Free (2003) supports this argument by saying that American courts are the places where those who feel that their rights have been infringed go to seek justice. They expect the courts to look into the matter and make a sound decision based on the evidence provided. They expect the jury to be impartial and make rulings that are reasonably just.
When this is not observed, there will be no justice, and the victim will walk free to commit other crimes. Rush (2000) points out the case where Lemrick Nelson Jr. attacked and fatally stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish scholar. When Lemrick and his gang were arrested, the dying Yankel was able to identify Lemrick as the stabber.
This was in concurrence with the eyewitness of this crime. Despite the glaring evidence that was given in court, the jurists- majorly composed of blacks- acquitted Lemrick of the crimes against him. Their decision was pure because the accused was also black. Lemrick would later slash another student a few months after acquittal, a sign that he had a criminal mind.
For this reason, ethnicity-based jury nullification should be avoided at all cost. This is because it makes a section of the society believe that they have some form of protection, and are, therefore, justified to commit a crime. The other section will feel victimized and will have no confidence with the courts. This may encourage cases where people take law in their own hands because they believe that courts are unfair.
Some scholars have, however, supported ethnicity-based jury nullification on varying grounds. Paul Butler, a professor of law at the University of George Washington, is one of the strongest supporters of ethnicity-based jury nullifications (Walker, 2012). According to this professor, the majority of the current inmates in the courts of this country are African Americans. The main reason why they found themselves in jail was not their criminal actions, but their race.
Their main crime was to be blacks in a white-dominated country. This scholar further states that the law governing most courts in this country were developed during those oppressive years when the blacks were considered lesser citizens of this country.
Rice (2010) agrees with this fact by saying that jurists should make their decisions independent of some of the laws because they were not fair to some members of this country. This scholar says that this practice is an alternative way of offering justice to those who are not fully represented in some of the laws of this country.
Contemporary examples of ethnicity-based jury nullification
Several contemporary cases that involve ethnicity-based jury nullification have been pointed out by scholars and human rights watch groups who are concerned that justice in this country is going down the drain. One such case has been mentioned above the murder trial of Lemrick Nelson in 1991.
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As was mentioned, Lemrick was acquitted despite the evidence that the prosecution team presented in the courts. Another recent case that has raised a lot of controversies involved two Pennsylvanians youths. A 19-year-old Derrick Donchak and a 17-year-old Brandon Piekarsky were charged with threatening to kill Luis Ramirez- an immigrant from Mexico- and then executing their threat.
The evidence that the two had been involved in the death of Ramirez was so clear that one did not need a legal background to know that the two were guilty as charged (Free, 2003). Many of those who attended the session in the courtroom knew that the two would be found guilty because even the defense attorney was not able to convince the court that the two were innocent. However, the jury acquitted the two, to the surprise of many who attended the courtroom session, family and friends of the victims, and the public (Rush, 2000).
Ethnicity-based jury nullification was very common when racial discrimination was common in the United States. However, this ugly practice is coming back to society once again. Jurists have made several controversial acquittals in manners, which points out that their decision was influenced by their ethnicity.
The jury should always base decisions on the evidence presented. It is important to give justice priority at all times to make the law courts relevant to the public. If ethnicity-based jury nullification is allowed to flourish, then courts will lose their meaning, and people will start looking for alternative ways of getting justice.
Free, M. D. (2003). Racial issues in criminal justice: The case of African Americans. Westport: Praeger.
McNamara, R., & Burns, R. (2009). Multiculturalism in the criminal justice system. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Rice, S. (2010). Race, ethnicity, and policing: New and essential readings. New York: New York University Press.
Rush, S. E. (2000). Loving across the color line: A white adoptive mother learns about race. Lanhamr: Rowman & Littlefield.
Walker, S. (2012). The Color of justice: Race, ethnicity, and crime in America. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.