Jury Deliberations in Black and White

Jury Deliberations in Black and White

[OPINION] Writer Chris Wilder reflects on how race plays a role in the jury room---and why we shouldn't dodge our duty to serve

Chris Wilder

by Chris Wilder, November 04, 2013

Jury Deliberations in Black and White

Most people of color in this country will tell you that race plays a part in everything we do, see, hear, eat, smell, live in and work around. And in the jury room---a place where fates are decided and lives are forever changed---that is still very much so the case.

Several years ago, I was on an eight-member jury in a civil trial in Philadelphia in which a Black woman from Ohio and her husband were suing Wyeth Pharmaceuticals claiming that a drug they manufacture for menopause symptoms gave her breast cancer. At seven weeks, my jury service was a little longer than the now-infamous George Zimmerman trial this summer, but we weren’t sequestered. The case was high-profile enough to be covered by the media as it moved along, but there was no TV coverage and perhaps only one or two small print stories about it daily.

At jury selection, they needed eight people and I was chosen from a group of 60---mainly because I was one of just two people there that didn’t know anyone that had breast cancer or had died of it.

After three days, they finally settled on eight of us: six Black, one white and one Latino. We were told to come back the following week for the start of the trial. When we returned and were sent into a room to wait for the trial to begin, there was a group of seven white people and one Asian in there presumably for another trial. Then a court officer came in and told us all to come with him. It turned out that in the days after they picked the eight of us, they picked the other group for the same trial.

We were grouped as one and it was determined that four Black people, including me, and three white and one Asian were the jurors and the others were alternates.

The proceedings began and they introduced us to the plaintiffs, a Black married couple in their 60s from Dayton, Ohio. The husband was an army veteran. We were shown pictures of their home and of their adult children. They were presented as a very nice family that seemingly had a nice life. The husband had even run for mayor of the town they lived in some years ago. They were very nice people and the defense made no attempt at sullying their image.

During the trial, every witness was an expert with flip charts and boring Powerpoint presentations that each took a day or more. There were researchers, an endocrinologist, the former head of surgery from a New York City hospital and so on.

By the end, I knew more about the causes, effects and treatment of breast cancer than anyone I know that’s not a doctor. We were hit over the head with fact after fact and diagram after diagram. Then the attorneys would cross examine the witnesses and that’s when we found out how much money the expert had gotten paid to create a report and testify and how many times they had testified previously.

Finally, after seven weeks the closing arguments were complete, the judge had given us the instructions and I thought it was an open and shut case. I thought we’d be out of there in 15 minutes. We got inside and took an initial vote to see where everyone stood and wouldn’t you know it, the Black people all voted in favor of the plaintiff while the white people and the Asian all voted in favor of the defense.

Really? I was shocked. It hadn’t occurred to me that this would be a racial thing but apparently it was…much like the Zimmerman case.

According to Juror B-37, when the Zimmerman jury got behind closed doors and took an initial vote, there were three for acquittal, two for manslaughter and just one for second-degree murder. Now that Juror B 29, identified only as “Maddy” and the only non-white juror, has spoken publicly in an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, we know that she was the one that wanted to find Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder.

“My first vote was second degree murder,” Maddy said. “A lot of us had wanted to find something bad, something that we could connect to the law because all six of us — let’s not speak for all six of us. For myself, he’s guilty because the evidence shows he’s guilty.”

And that is how I felt after hearing all of the testimony at that trial in Philly. The evidence showed that Wyeth’s drug accelerated the growth of cancer cells.

Since we were split down the middle, we next outlined all of the facts that we had and determined which were in favor of the plaintiffs and which were in favor of the defense but even that proved to be

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