Updated: Dec 6, 2022
By Julieta Smith
Abra Cadabra! Just like that, with a simple hand gesture, a skilled magician uses cognitive illusion to misdirect the audience's attention. The audience is bewildered because they only see the beginning and end of a maneuver. The results defy explanation. They are left spellbound. This may sound like an evening in a Las Vegas showroom, but it isn’t. It’s a typical day in many Louisiana courtrooms where prosecutors perform the magic trick of “making jurors of color disappear.” Louisiana criminal defense attorneys Vanessa Williams and LaToia Williams-Simon, whose resumes include a combined 30 years of legal experience, with 20 years dedicated to criminal prosecution, criminal defense, and focus on significant felony and life without parole cases, have witnessed many of these legal magic shows. Williams and Simon encourage prospectus jurors of color to bring a few tricks of their own.
Because it is illegal to prevent jury service solely because of race, some legal magicians “challenge on the cause instead of color,” says Williams. She continues, “They [prosecutors] may ask a juror of color, ‘Can you stay off work 4-5 days?’ ‘Do you have family members convicted of a crime?’ ‘How do you feel about the police?’ or ‘Can you sit in judgment of another?’” These and other such questions are commonly used because they mask discriminatory queries and use the unsuspecting juror’s responses to justify their removal. Jurors of color should be prepared to answer honestly, yet creatively, and with full knowledge that a good magician can make things disappear. Let’s consider the final question: “Can you sit in judgment of another?” The magician wants the juror of color to answer based on their religious beliefs. Instead, when the juror responds, “I do not believe in judgment, but I will follow the law,” delivering an honest, well-packaged response, the juror of color is harder to strike.
Georgia civil litigation attorney and former prosecutor Jessica Tehlirian warn that social media is the latest trick in the magician’s hat. “If you answer that you do not hate the police, ensure your social media site is private or reflects your answer. Some prosecutors will view public records of jurors and use that to have them removed,” Tehlirian says. Jurors of color must post with this in mind because jury diversity matters. Social media posts can strategically aid prosecutors seeking to remove jurors of color. Credible research establishes that most Louisiana parishes do not call people of color to serve on juries in their proper numbers. After this initial problem, the people of color who arrive for jury duty face prosecutors performing magic tricks on them, creating jury panels that lack diversity, thereby stripping the defendant of a “jury of their peers.” If you need proof, look no further than Terren Johnson, a Louisianan defendant and victim of a white-washed jury orchestrated by magic, who now answers to inmate No. 432043.
Let’s keep the Sleight-of-Hand, Trick of the Eye, out of the jury box unless we use it to make legal magicians disappear.
Julieta Smith is a third-year law student in Angela Allen-Bell's
Civil Rights Litigation course at Southern University Law Center.