Forced To Play the “Wheel of Misfortune” While on Trial

There is a time and place for games and it is not in court where life-altering decisions are made. Some courts seem to disagree. These courts force accused persons to play the “Wheel of Misfortune” with their Sixth Amendment  rights.  The game begins with the use of a source list to determine potential jurors for trial. Later, when the wheel is spun, the criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights are either honored and a fair cross-section of the community is represented on the jury, or these rights are trampled upon and the accused person’s fate is decided by a jury lacking in diversity. Too often, harm awaits those who play the “Wheel of Misfortune.”

Social scientist Patrick Bayer conducted a study on conviction rates in areas where minorities were underrepresented on juries. He determined that panels without black jurors convicted minorities at a rate of 81% whereas when one black person was present, the minority conviction rate decreased by 10%. This suggests that lack of jury diversity can contribute to greater minority convictions, which, in turn, causes mass incarceration. Psychologist Samuel R. Sommers’ study of jury diversity concluded that it improved group decision-making and reduced convictions. This research showed that diverse juries deliberated longer and were more thorough in processing case facts and evidence. 

The Northern District of Illinois has ideas worth considering on this subject. They employed targeted-zip-code replacement mailing when faced with high rates of returned or ignored jury notices. Targeted zip-code mailing allows the Clerk to send a new questionnaire to the address of another eligible juror in the same zip code when the questionnaire is not successfully returned by the initial prospect. Illinois also implemented the use of multiple lists for jury selection instead of a relying on one list, like voter registration records, as is often done to the detriment of minorities. Another consideration is increasing the amount allotted to jurors for their service, so service does not introduce adverse financial consequences.  

These suggestions are few, but many when one considers what’s at stake. Our Constitution requires that juries represent the community to protect fundamental rights of defendants, to further public safety aims and to ensure public confidence in the judiciary. Spinning a wheel of justice that produces chances for fortune and probabilities of misfortune is not what the Six Amendment contemplates. The time has come to declare: “game over”!   

 Brittany Dunn is a student of Law & Racism at Southern University Law Center.

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