Illlustration courtesy Jane Flavell Collins
Jury duty, like voting, is a hallmark of American citizenship. Before the Civil War, African Americans were excluded from jury service. As a result, the fate of black litigants was routinely left to exclusively white juries in both civil and criminal jury trials. Not until 1860 were the first African Americans seated on a Massachusetts jury.
In criminal cases involving black defendants and white victims, some Massachusetts prosecutors continued to seek all-white juries, using their peremptory challenges to remove black jurors. This discriminatory practice continued until 1979, when the Supreme Judicial Court held it was unconstitutional.
Equal Jury Access in All Court Trials: Commonwealth v. Edward J. Soares
| ||Until 1979, Massachusetts prosecutors often used their peremptory challenges to prevent black juror participation in cases involving a black defendant and a white victim. The practice was ended after Commonwealth v. Edward J. Soares, in which the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that this practice denied black defendants their constitutional right to a trial by a jury of their peers. |
At the 1977 murder trial of the popular Harvard football player, Andrew Puopulo, the prosecution used challenges to exclude twelve of the thirteen potential black jurors. Two years later, the Supreme Judicial Court reversed the conviction and ordered that the case be retried.
The right to be tried by a jury drawn fairly from a representative cross section of the community is critical
. Justice Paul J. Liacos, 1979
Courtesy The Boston Globe
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In 1860, two Worcester barbers, Francis U. Clough and William H. Jenkins, were the first African Americans selected to serve on a Massachusetts jury or on any jury in the United States. The June 1860 edition of The Liberator an important antislavery newspaper that also opposed racismhailed this event as an encouraging sign of the times.
Masthead and segment from The Liberator. Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University