Letting the Guilty Go Free: Whites' and Blacks' Willingness to Participate in Jury Nullification

Devon Johnson, George Mason University

Research shows that a majority of African Americans, and a significant number of white Americans, perceive the criminal justice system as racially biased. Few studies have addressed the consequences of these views. This paper examines whites' and blacks' willingness to participate in jury nullification using an innovative survey-based experiment from the 2002 Race, Crime and Public Opinion study (N=2,387). The experiment systematically varies the race of an alleged offender, the crime for which he has been accused, and whether police conduct in the case has been influenced by racial bias. Results show that there is more willingness to let a guilty person go free if he is accused of a non-violent drug offense than an attempted murder, and if there is a possibility of police racial bias in the case. Moreover, there is a substantial black-white difference, with blacks more willing than white to engage in jury nullification. Multivariate analyses examine the sources of these attitudes, focusing on the effects of perceived racial bias in the criminal justice system, racial prejudice, ideology, crime salience, views of the police, and contact with the criminal justice system. The implications of the results are discussed.

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Updated 05/20/2006