Journalist Dax Devlon-Ross has all the makings of a seat-gripping, spine-tingling Hollywood thriller on his hands should he ever turn his story illustrating the perils of the criminal justice system into a screenplay.
Problem is, the storyline, which is far from fiction, reaches a devastating conclusion that may be too bitter of a pill for most African Americans to swallow.
Devlon-Ross spent two years researching and writing “Bias in the Box,” a feature that was funded by the Nation’s Institute Investigative Fund and was published recently in the Virginia Quarterly Review. In it he investigates the literal life-or-death impact of Black jury exclusions in capital murder trials. By peering into the politics behind North Carolina’s repealed 2009 Racial Justice Act, which, for the first time in history allowed defendants to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge death sentences, Devlon-Ross shows that in violation of several Supreme Court rulings Black folk are still routinely denied the opportunity to sit as jurors in cases involving Black defendants up for murder. The injustice makes him angry.
“[As a Black man] I definitely feel a personal connection to the mass incarceration conversation,” says Devlon-Ross whose research into a series of grisly southern murder trials involving African American defendants showed they all had something else in common — Blacks had been omitted from the jury box due to racial bias during the selection process. “I’ve written about death row,” he explains. “I wrote a novel about a young man who I spent some time with who was a juvenile offender and was ultimately executed. So I think living in a country that continues to practice capital punishment — particularly when you see the disproportionate numbers of executions happening to Blacks — feels like the old confederacy. There is a clear connection between what happens to these defendants and whose sitting in the jury box and people don’t want to talk about it.”
They especially don’t want to talk about it when the defendant is likely guilty, as was the case of Andrew Ramseur, a 19-year-old who in 2007 allegedly shot and killed a convenience store clerk and a customer in Statesville, NC. After all of the potential Black jurors in Ramseur’s case were mysteriously dismissed, his lawyers moved to have Ramseur’s life sentence commuted to life without parole by instituting the 2009 Racial Justice Act.
“Ramseur was not a sympathetic person, nor are most of the people that are on trial for these heinous crimes sympathetic characters,” says Devlon-Ross of the convicted Ramseur who still sits on death row. "But the integrity of our system requires that we uphold a standard. If we don’t uphold a standard there’s a slippery slope. You can’t use [someone’s potential guilt] as a reason for selecting a [potentially biased] jury. You can’t say, ‘We don’t want any Black people on the jury because we’ve already decided that he needs to be convicted.”
But all too often, Devlon-Ross says, that’s exactly what happens. In his story he cites the first large-scale empirical study linking jury discrimination to capital convictions in Philadelphia between 1981 and 1997. It found that prosecutors, trained to seek “conviction”-prone jurors, were also trained to avoid “Blacks from low-income areas,” “young Black women,” “real educated Blacks,” and older Black women due to their maternal instincts. In other words, they were trained to avoid Blacks altogether.
He also found that:
-Between 2000 and 2010 all-White juries in Florida were 16 percent more likely to convict Black defendants than white defendants, and the conviction gap was “nearly eliminated” when the jury pool included at least one black member
-In a majority of predominantly Black counties in the Deep South, no person of color had ever served on a capital jury, according to a 2010 report on jury participation
-When given the exact same made-up profile of potential jurors (the only difference being race) participant groups in one study were 25% more likely to challenge the appointment of a Black juror.
This last fact, Devlon-Ross says, may not even be the result of outright discrimination but “implicit” bias.
“There’s a whole lot of social science happening out here with people starting to look at implicit bias because we live in a moment where no one is going to admit they have bias,” says Devlon-Ross, referencing a study currently being done on implicit bias as it relates to state legislatures and those who might be prone to pass voter ID laws. “People might admit being biased to their friends but there’s too much of a social cost associated with going any further than that. The only way we can really start to explore how bias impacts our criminal justice system it is to look beneath people’s explicit expressions of fairness and open-mindedness at some of the behaviors associated with it,” says Devlon-Ross.
“There’s hope in the fact that you had people in the South that were progressive enough to pass a law that was ultimately repealed by a conservative backlash,” he says referencing North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, which passed the year President Obama was elected. “There’s hope in more journalists like myself that will tell the story and help explain the issue because it is nuanced. You have to understand implicit bias in order to really see how pervasive and pernicious it is. “