Who’s Who in the Courtroom? Think Again.

April 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

It was getting close to lunchtime in the large jury room where two hundred or so people sat trying to stave off boredom. The clerk called forty names. Mine was one of them. He told us that when we got back from lunch we were to go to a courtroom on another floor where we would be “voir dired” for a trial.

The courtroom was still locked when we got there, and we waited in the hall. After a while the people involved in the case came back from their lunch – a couple of White men, age forty or fifty, wearing suits; a younger, very stocky Black man (thirty?), also in a suit but one that was too tight for his body; and, in a wheelchair pushed by one of the suited White men, a gray-haired White man, slender almost frail looking, wearing a plain open-collar shirt.

I chatted with a couple of me fellow jurors.  We figured that the Black guy in the ill-fitting suit was the defendant, that the man in the wheelchair must be a victim or a witness, and that the others were lawyers. 

When we were finally seated in the courtroom, the judge told us that this was a murder case. He introduced the defense counsel – one of the suited White guys; the assistant district attorney – the Black guy in the suit; and the defendant – the man in the wheelchair.

This happened many years ago, but I recalled it  after reading this article at The African American Athlete that someone on Facebook linked to.  It’s about a Black lawyer, Bryan Stevenson  who shows up early in the courtroom and takes his seat at the defense table. Soon the judge and other lawyers walk in.

And when the judge saw me sitting at the counsel table, he looked at me and he said, “Hey, hey, hey, you get out of here. I don't want any defendant sitting in my courtroom until their lawyers get here. You go back out there in the hallway and wait for your lawyer.”*

I supposed I should submit the question to Yo, Is This Racist? On the face of it, the answer in both courtrooms is Yes. White people mistook a Black attorney for a criminal defendant. You could even argue that my fellow jurors and I were doubly bigoted, for we assumed that a disabled, wheelchair-bound person was not equally capable of killing someone.**

In my defense, I would ask this: of those four people coming through the hall and into the courtroom, which one was statistically most likely to be the defendant?  I would remind those who would judge us that we had only their physical appearance to base our assumptions on. Unfortunately, this same entangling of racism and statistical probabilities comes into play in more important questions, and I find it frustrating that so often neither side takes seriously the arguments, evidence, or ideas of the other.

The incident also illustrates the power of the first impression. Once I had looked at these people and mentally cast them in their parts, I didn’t bother to check my assumptions. If I had, I would have realized that the man in the wheelchair could not have been a victim or witness. Victims and witnesses do not come to the courtroom for voir dire. They appear only for the actual trial. I’d been on jury duty enough times to know that. But this truth was so inconvenient to my first impression that it did not enter my mind.

The other incident illustrates these same dynamics: racism perhaps, but also two more general processes that affect how we see other people. First, we quickly form impressions, and these may be based on statistical realities and on our own particular experiences. And second, those impressions once formed can filter and distort any subsequent information.

I hope to have more on this and on the judge and the Black lawyer in a subsequent post.


* This excerpt is not from the African American Athlete article. It’s from an NPR interview with Stevenson three years ago.

** There was no doubt that he had shot and killed the victim. The question would be whether it was murder or self-defense. I was not selected for the jury, so I never learned all the details of the case or the verdict. 

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