Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Saturday, October 30, 2004

I'm not sure how many juries we've picked this year-- we have taken an unusually high number of verdicts, I know. Whatever the number, I know that you could count the number of African Americans in the panels we've seen in Western New York on your fingers-- and you wouldn't need any fingers to count the ones we've seen empaneled, because there haven't been any. Not one. Since we have been representing a number of African American clients this year, this fact has been distressing to us.

Now, you may ask, "What difference does it make? Shouldn't the system be race blind?" and I have to agree that I wish it were that way-- but we are practicing law in the real world. The real world isn't race blind, and, more importantly, the reality of being black in America is something I don't think any white person can really ever completely understand. It is a different culture, and the expectations that exist when you are black are impossible to get your mind around if you haven't lived it every day of your life.

We had three African American women on our panel yesterday. In terms of age, background, education and employment-- the things on the juror questionnaire-- they were more or less indistinguishable from the other women in the room, but since our client happens to be black we knew that our adversaries would be trying to find challenges for cause to get them off the panel. Here in New York we have limited judicial supervision of voir dire. Counsel raised a challenge as to one of these women, and the judicial hearing officer who was supervising jury selection brought her into the robing room to question her on the point in contention. "Now, will you be able to follow the law when the trial judge charges you?" he asked.

Her eyes got big. "The judge is going to charge me?" she asked.

I've picked hundreds of juries, and questioned thousands of prospective panelists, but I'd never heard that before. But you know what? From where this perfectly ordinary, respectable teacher's aide was coming from, it was an entirely understandable thing to be confused about. She's felt the stare of the shopkeeper follow her every time she's ever walked into a store; she knows who the cop is looking at when he drives by-- that's the world she lives in, every day, and that's why it makes a difference.

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