Other Voices

Guyger trial demonstrates power of juries. Here’s how we can make them even stronger

At a time when revelations of race-based exclusion have threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the American jury system, Amber Guyger’s trial reminds us of the power and potential of this institution.

The jury in Guyger’s prosecution reflected the diversity of the population of Dallas County, and it produced results: a murder conviction and a 10-year sentence for Guyger, a former Dallas police officer who shot dead her unarmed neighbor as he ate ice cream on his couch a year ago. She testified that she mistakenly entered his apartment and mistook him for a burglar.

This outcome was accomplished after an onerous trial that required separation from jurors’ families, attention to wrenching and traumatic video evidence of Botham Jean’s murder, and despite numerous obstacles to participation.

Research shows that the most powerful predictor of attrition from jury service is a person’s income and educational level. In my own research, I have regularly observed that claims of financial hardship whittle jury pools down to the more affluent potential jurors.

This presumes, of course, that citizens are able to report for jury service to begin with: Of the 4,000 Dallas County residents summoned for jury selection in Guyger’s case, fewer than 800 showed up to fill out questionnaires.

Dallas County jurors are paid $6 for reporting for jury service — little more than the cost of parking in the Crowley Courthouse lot. For each subsequent day they serve, jurors receive $40.

Encouraging juror participation will require bold reform.

First, potential jurors should never be excluded from service on the grounds of financial hardship. Those who stand to lose income from serving on juries should be compensated. In Maricopa County, Ariz., jurors can apply to have daily incomes of over $300 replaced by the court. Between July 2016 and June 2017, 629 jurors made use of this resource and were reimbursed for more than $500,000 from a fund regularly replenished by a modest litigant filing fee.

For prospective jurors who are self-employed, work for an hourly wage, fill night shifts, work part-time, or require paid childcare assistance, this kind of support is essential. It can mitigate socioeconomic and racial disparities on juries. Today, dismissals of jurors for reasons of hardship — among other “cause” rationales — result in racial disparities among impaneled jurors.

Second, to encourage juries that are reflective of Americans’ diverse experience, values, and perspectives on the criminal justice system, we should reform laws that bar participation on the basis of citizenship and criminal record. Jury rolls should include noncitizen legal residents and those convicted of crimes. These antiquated and ill-conceived barriers have led to juries that poorly reflect the diversity of our communities.

Whatever their flaws, and however controversial their verdicts, juries democratize legal decision-making in this country. As we saw in Guyger’s trial, they can also bring mercy to meting out punishment, when given the chance.

It’s time we focused on how to support and empower the ordinary citizens we summon to do justice.

Anna C. Offit is an assistant professor of law at SMU Dedman School of Law. She is trained as a lawyer and a cultural anthropologist.
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