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The trial of ex-cop Daniel Holtzclaw: why an all-white jury is such a huge problem

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

A former Oklahoma City police officer is on trial for allegedly raping or sexually assaulting 13 black women. But the trial has already run into a very big problem: The ex-cop's fate will be decided by an all-white jury, most of which is made up of men.

As the city's police chief said in 2014, Daniel Holtzclaw allegedly preyed on victims by abusing his police powers: "Traffic stops, some of the individuals were actually just walking. Walking in their neighborhood and they were stopped, you know, searched, threatened in some way with arrest or something to that extent. And as a result of that, [he] actually coerced them into providing sexual favors to him." One victim was 17 years old when Holtzclaw allegedly raped her, according to the Associated Press.

In a perfect world, these types of charges would be so obviously abhorrent that the racial makeup of a jury would not matter. But we do not live in a perfect world: The research has shown time and time again that the racial makeup of a jury can influence its decisions.

Juries are tremendously flawed and racially biased

A jury box. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Many, many studies have found that juries are inherently biased, and different racial compositions can make them even more biased in certain directions. Specifically, the whiter the jury, the more likely it is to convict a black defendant.

A 2007 study by Samuel Sommers of Tufts University found that race plays a major role in juries. In a review of the research, Sommers found that white juries tend to be harder toward black defendants than diverse juries. Sommers raised several explanations for this, including a theory that the mere presence of black jurors may make it harder for white jurors to express prejudice.

But Sommers also found that jurors don't seem to possess racial bias in cases that are racially charged. Still, in cases that don't bring up blatant racial issues, white jurors are much harder on black defendants than on white ones. It's unclear where Holtzclaw's trial would fall in this spectrum, especially because the ex-cop's mother is Japanese and his father is white.

Another study by University of Houston and Boston University researchers from 2013 found jury bias goes deeper than race. Although juries with more black members tend to favor the defense, juries that include more religious and higher-income people tend to side with the prosecution. So factors beyond race that have nothing to do with the evidence presented in a case can completely skew how the trial ends. The researchers concluded that their "results thus raise some concerns regarding the trustworthiness of US criminal trials."

The study also found that women jurors tend to be harsher on defendants when the victim is a woman, as is the case in Holtzclaw's trial. This speaks to why demographics matter in juries: Women are more likely to understand the terrible misogyny women experience, from "microaggressions" that devalue them due to their gender to the horrific levels of sexual violence many women report. If you're attuned to these types of experiences, you're perhaps more likely to understand why they should be taken seriously in a trial, instead of finding victim-blaming excuses that are all too common in public discourse.

Similarly, a jury with more black members might be able to better relate to the kinds of racism and oppression black people face on a daily basis. In the case of Holtzclaw, they might be particularly aware of the racial disparities that exist in the criminal justice system, and might be more willing to believe that a cop really can abuse his power to oppress innocent black people.

These studies show the enormous problem with Holtzclaw's trial: Even before it really gets going, there are already significant questions about how the mere makeup of its jury could invalidate any findings. At the very least, it demonstrates yet another way that the criminal justice system is tremendously flawed and skewed.

Watch: Why it's important to film the police