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Life lessons from mock jurors: “Money don’t got no color”

Monday, May 28, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

We learn a lot from our mock jurors and not just about cases–but about life and about persuasion. Early this month, we were doing a pretrial research project about allegedly fraudulent billing practices that targeted poor people. We learned a very effective and yet, very quiet way of confronting racism in a deliberating group.

The mock jurors purposely reflected the diverse demographic make-up of the venue. They were various ages, incomes, and educational levels as well as a mixture of ethnicities. As the story unfolded, the mock jurors learned that the accused party only served the poor and actually targeted services to specific zip code areas. Initially there was a positive response, as it appeared that this business was interested in providing services to a segment of the community that was typically underserved. When the purported deceptive practices were described, there were heads nodding differently around the room.

That’s a good business model”, an older Caucasian woman said, “because those Mexicans will do whatever you tell them to do”. She seemed oblivious to the very bright, young Hispanic male sitting next to her and the Asian American woman sitting next to him and the middle-aged Hispanic female next to her. All of their eyes opened very wide and they made extended eye contact with a young African American male with dreadlocks sitting across the table from them. The lawyers in the observation room watched with open mouths.

When asked to explain what she meant, the woman modified her statement a bit to incorporate comments about education, lack of language proficiency and poverty. Several other Caucasian jurors around the room chimed in that poor people were more likely to fall victim to financial scams since the economy had made their lives especially tough. It became apparent that “poor” would be a code word for “Mexican” and that the group was going to talk around issues of race and bias and potentially blame the victims.

Suddenly, an older African American male grinned and said “You know, money don’t got no color–not in terms of who wants it! Not in this economy. I think any of us would be interested in a potential financial windfall if it knocked on our door or rang our cell phone.” Others grinned back and nodded in agreement and just like that, the room changed. Jurors were able to talk and disagree and eventually, (and surprisingly, given how the discussion began) they were unanimously against the predatory nature of the service provider seeking out the poor and disempowered.

We’ll call that older African American man William. He was a pleasant man who cracked jokes throughout the night but also made pointed comments about power, greed, and values. He was a pivotal member of the group. He probably would not have been the presiding juror–but his contributions were critical to moving the group from automatic biases to consideration of the evidence without skin color attached. His wisdom, candor, and humor cut through the rhetoric and made the conversation real. We liked William a lot. And we’re always thrilled to see persuasion in action–even when you don’t expect it.

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