Jury System on Trial in Memphis

March 07, 1993

The trial of Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford has begun -- with hi jurors on trial. Some may even feel intimidated. Three dozen demonstrators marched outside the U.S. courthouse in Memphis show support for the accused black congressman. The leader of the group said he expected no violence "if this process goes properly."

The problem with the process is that the jury is composed of 11 whites and one black, all from another jurisdiction. A federal judge ordered the jury chosen from outside Memphis, which is heavily black. The demonstrators and other supporters of the Memphis congressman have charged that white jurors don't treat blacks fairly.

That complaint is the opposite of the reasoning that led to the decision on the jury panel. A federal judge (who is black) concluded that the prosecution couldn't get a fair trial with a Memphis jury. He based this on the fact that Representative Ford's first trial on these same charges (accepting illegal payoffs) ended in a mistrial when four white jurors from Memphis voted for conviction and eight black jurors from Memphis voted for acquittal -- some of the latter in part because of community pressure for "racial solidarity."

This has a familiar ring. A generation ago federal prosecutors often claimed it was necessary to try white Southerners accused of race-related crimes before juries from far afield. But the situation is Memphis is different. The old decisions were based on a history and pattern of jury bias and white juror susceptibility to pressure for racial solidarity.

Black jurors are not so suspect today. There is no such pattern and history. We are a thousand miles from the scene, but we have to say we cannot believe the judge was right to conclude that because one local jury behaved racially so would the next. We believe it was a seriously wrong decision to bring jurors in from another and quite different part of Tennessee and to change the racial composition of the jury so drastically from that at the original trial.

But having said this, we also have to say that just as black jurors today should not be suspect, neither should white ones. There are studies showing a correlation between the race of jurors and their verdicts, but the trend is away from that. The jury in this case can give Representative Ford a fair trial, we believe. We believe the black community will accept any verdict as "proper" if there are no signs of racism or discrimination. If we're wrong, if this is the beginning of a new trend, a new pattern, then the jury system itself is in trouble -- and not just in Tennessee.

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