I've covered a lot of murder trials while working as a television news reporter in three different states. I've witnessed a considerable gap in the competency and likability of defense attorneys. Highly paid, slick-talking defense attorneys with big law firms who really know how to connect with jurors seem to win cases much more than young, underpaid, inexperienced public defenders. Common sense will tell you poor defendants have a better chance of going to jail than wealthier ones.
For this reason, it seems obvious black defendants have more of a disadvantage in our court systems than whites. According to The New York Times, for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04. White defendants are typically able to hire more expensive lawyers, giving them a better chance of acquittal.
And while I don't subscribe to the notion we are an oppressive nation of racists denying blacks the opportunity to succeed, it is undeniable racism is still with us to some degree. To argue some white jurors will give the same benefit of the doubt to black defendants as they would to their own race seems foolish and naive. With blacks committing a disproportionate percentage of crime, it's safe to assume some would more likely view a black defendant guilty than a white one. This bias seems more probable with older white jurors.
Another disadvantage black defendants face is that fewer blacks show up for jury duty. Data shows blacks are more likely to be renters than whites and thus move more frequently and are less likely to receive a jury summons.
Other socioeconomic factors also tend to disproportionately depress black turnout at the courthouse, including a greater dependence on public transit and higher rates of poverty, which can make it harder to swallow the lost income of jury service, studies have shown. Also, convicted felons who have not had their rights restored are ineligible, and this group in Louisiana is disproportionately black.
The advantage the wealthy have over the poor applies to most areas of life. The criminal justice system is no different. Some might argue this makes the case for socialism and redistributing wealth. But history has proved time and time again socialism doesn't work and leads to an even wider gap between rich and poor. In fact, it creates much more poverty, with only a select few ending up well off.
One advantage black defendants may have is black jurors tend to be more skeptical of police and district attorneys and therefore are more likely to acquit someone of their own race. A recent ABC News poll found only 28 percent of blacks believe they receive equal treatment from police.
While working as a reporter for KATC Television in 1995, I was sent to the cafeteria at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to get reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdict. When the not-guilty verdict was announced on television, most of the black students sprung to their feet and cheered while most of the white students sat there with a look of shock on their faces. Polls showed at the time only 20 percent of blacks thought Simpson was guilty. A Washington Post poll last year found 57 percent of blacks now believe Simpson did indeed kill ex-wife Nicole Brown and friend Ronald Goldman.
An ABC News poll conducted earlier this year showed both blacks and whites believe race relations have improved since the Simpson verdict 23 years ago. And 54 percent of Americans now say they've brought someone of the opposite race home for dinner recently. That's up from just 20 percent 30 years ago.
Race still plays a role in our jury of peers court system, but we're heading in the right direction. Until we reach the day of total color blindness, the idea of requiring a unanimous jury for felony convictions seems like a sensible safeguard to protect defendants from any built-in bias in our criminal justice system. I strongly recommend we adopt the practice used in 48 other states and vote yes on Louisiana Constitutional Amendment No. 2 on November 6.
Email Dan Fagan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @DanFaganShow.