Project description

In the Dark Season Two is the story of a black man who has been tried six times for the same crime – a quadruple murder in a small town in Mississippi – and a white prosecutor who is determined to have him executed. The podcast examines the case against Curtis Flowers and reveals that witnesses against him testified falsely; that the prosecutor failed to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence; that expert testimony relied on junk “science”; and that the prosecutor systematically struck black potential jurors from the jury pool, ensuring that Flowers was always tried by juries that were mostly or entirely white.

This last finding is the focus of our submission for consideration for the Data Journalism Awards: our work examining the jury selection in this Mississippi district.

Of the 72 people who have sat in judgment of Curtis Flowers, 61 have been white, in a district that is more than 40 percent black. Black jurors have split about 50-50 on Flowers’ guilt, but every white juror has voted to convict him. Twice, courts have found that Doug Evans struck potential jurors because of their race, a violation of the Constitution as set forth in the case Batson v. Kentucky. The Mississippi Supreme Court called Evans’ behavior in one case “as strong a prima facie case of racial discrimination as we have ever seen in the context of a Batson challenge.” This history led the reporting team to a question: Are prosecutors in this judicial district striking black people from serving on juries more often than white people in other cases?

Through an ambitious data reporting project, we found that over 25 years of Doug Evans’ tenure, from 1992 to 2017, across 225 trials, Evans and his assistant district attorneys exercised peremptory strikes against black jurors at a much higher rate than white jurors, a pattern of racial disparity that holds across all seven counties and across trials for different kinds of crime. Using information on more than 6,700 jurors, we found that Evans’ office struck black people from juries at almost 4½ times the rate it struck white people. The prosecution struck 50 percent of eligible black jurors compared to only 11 percent of eligible whites. We also found that even when controlling for other, race-neutral factors raised during juror questioning, black jurors were still far more likely to be struck than white jurors who answered in the same way.

The data shows that black defendants in this district repeatedly face all-white or mostly white juries. And, host Madeleine Baran tells listeners: “What this data also meant was that across Doug Evans’ district, black people were being disproportionately denied the opportunity to serve on juries. Black people were being denied the opportunity be a part of this powerful process of determining someone’s guilt. … To disproportionately exclude one group of people from serving on juries is like excluding one group of people from voting. It’s denying people access to power in a democracy.”

What makes this project innovative?

There is no podcast that does data reporting like In The Dark. We started with a simple question. Doug Evans has illegally discriminated against black jurors twice before, but is there a larger pattern of discrimination going on? To answer this question, we built one of the largest datasets on jury selection in the country. Even among academics, quantitative work on jury selection is rare because of the difficulty in gathering data. There are no comprehensive digital records of the criminal justice system under Doug Evans, so a team of reporters spent nearly a year digitizing court records and analyzing data. We did this work so that we could report what jury selection, a fundamental aspect of our democracy, looks like in the most comprehensive way possible. In The Dark is also unique in the way we mix data reporting, an inherently visual practice, with engrossing audio. We treat treat data as a character in the larger story we are telling to bring listeners along on the journey that we, as reporters, went go through as we investigate jury selection. We talk about how to find the data, what it means, why it’s important, and what it can tell us. We tie that story together with the real-world consequences of the prosecutor’s jury selection practices. This approach helps our audience know the context and larger picture of the systems and institutions that govern the criminal justice system. In The Dark also believes in transparency, both for ourselves and our institutions. Many newsrooms release their data, but no other investigation has released as many source documents as In The Dark. We not only published all of our data, we also published all 115,000 pages we scanned, documents with legal significance for the people of Mississippi.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

In The Dark has been a hit with listeners. It has had over 40 million cumulative downloads between our two seasons and was the #1 podcast on iTunes. We have a private Facebook group for donors who have given more than $50 with over 500 people in it. We have been praised in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Yorker, ABC News, CBS, the PBS Newshour, The Atlantic, NPR, Vox, and numerous other websites and publications. We are deeply touched by how our show has resonated with listeners. But our work has also made an impact in Curtis’ ongoing quest for justice. This year, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the Flowers case. On March 20th, the Court heard oral arguments on whether Doug Evans illegally discriminated against black jurors in Curtis Flowers’ sixth trial. Our work on jury selection was cited extensively in amicus briefs submitted to the court. While the court has not yet issued a decision, the predominant view of experts is that the justices will most likely overturn Curtis’ conviction. In The Dark has also made an impact on the larger world of jury selection. Making our data as accessible as possible has increased its reach. We published all of our raw data, our methodology, and every single source document we gathered. Since we released this data, professors from Harvard and NYU have reached out to incorporate our data in their research. Lawyers at the Macarthur Justice Center and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund are using our data in ongoing lawsuits on jury selection. The journalism schools at Arizona State and Columbia have incorporated our work into their courses on data reporting.

Source and methodology

We wanted our investigation of jury selection practices to include every trial that Doug Evans and his office ever handled. To do that meant we needed a list of trials, the jurors called for jury duty in each, the race and gender of each juror, and whether the juror was accepted or removed from the jury pool. None of that information existed in any digital fashion. The judicial system in Mississippi is not subject to the state public records laws, so we had to get creative with gathering the documents we needed. There is no complete record of trials at the district court level so the first step we took was to create a complete list of all trials for Doug Evans’ territory, the Fifth Circuit Court District. Through a combination of requests for summary information and by going page by-page through hand-written docket books at each of the eight courthouses in the district, we created a list of 418 trials from 1992 to 2017 Once we had a list of trials to look for, three APM Reports journalists went courthouse to courthouse digitizing court files and the transcripts of trial proceedings, where available. We kept a log of every trial we were able to find and went to the Mississippi Department of History and Archives and the Mississippi Supreme Court Archives to look for additional court documents when we were unable to locate records in the lower courthouses. Because the cost of photocopies was prohibitive, we bought a portable high-volume scanner. At each courthouse, reporters spent weeks carefully taking thousands of pages of court records, pulling the staples, and scanning them. The quality of storage varied quite a lot between courthouses, with some files stored in a smelly abandoned men’s restroom and others stored in an old jail cell a clerk referred to as “the mesothelioma room.” In total, reporters scanned over 115,000 pages of court documents. After we created digital files of the court records and transcripts, we went through the files looking for five pieces of information and kept track of whether each trial had any of the following: 1. A record of all the potential jurors called for jury duty, referred to as the venire. 2. A record of the peremptory strikes exercised by both the prosecution and the defense, written down by either the judge or the court reporter. 3. The race of each potential juror, written down by either the judge or the court reporter on the margins of the list of potential jurors. 4. The list of jurors selected for jury duty. 5. A transcript of voir dire, the process of questioning potential jurors prior to selecting a jury. Once we knew what data was available for each proceeding, we conducted data entry in three phases. Using a custom-built database, we recorded basic information on each case such as the names of prosecutors and defense attorneys, the code violation, the defendant’s name and race, the verdict, whether the case was appealed, and whether we had the transcript of voir dire proceedings. We first went through entering information for every trial that had the race and strike decisions recorded on the venire sheet. During proceedings, the judge or the court reporter sometimes wrote the race of every juror next to the juror’s name on the venire sheet. We recorded the potential juror’s name, race, and gender if it was included, whether they were struck and by whom, and the potential juror’s strike eligibility. The race of the juror was available in the court files for 198 trials and in trial transcripts in another 27 trials. In total, we had race information on jury selection from 225 trials. Once we gathered and digitized the data, we did two levels of statistical analysis. First we looked at the difference in how prosecutors treated jurors of different races; and secondly, we looked at how jurors’ responses to questions during voir dire affected the likelihood of being struck. In analyzing the disparity in how prosecutors treated jurors of different races, we looked at the difference between the number of white and black jurors accepted and rejected from the pool of potential jurors. We found that prosecutors struck black prospective jurors at 4.5 times the rate they struck white jurors. In other words, they struck 50% of the eligible black prospective jurors and only 11% of the eligible white prospective jurors. We broke down the data in as many ways as we could, calculating the strike disparity for different types of crimes and the races of defendants. Though the ratio between white and black jurors accepted changed depending on the different subsets of trials we analyzed, we never found an instance where prosecutors removed white jurors at an equal or higher rate than black jurors. Reporters also read the transcripts of 89 trials and tracked how jurors responded to questions posed during jury selection. Though we observed clear differences in the way white and black potential jurors are treated across the Fifth Circuit Court District, there were several possible explanations for the observed disparity in strike rates. Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys ask jurors a series of questions prior to the trial to get a better understanding of potential biases the jurors might hold, a process referred to as voir dire. It was possible that the various race-neutral topics discussed in voir dire could explain the disparity in strike rates. In order to test these race-neutral factors, APM Reports read through 89 transcripts of voir dire proceedings and coded the responses of all jurors subject to strike decisions. These 89 trials were chosen because they represent all the trials where we found both the race of potential jurors entered into the court record and a complete transcript of voir dire. We tracked the responses of each juror using about 65 different variables. The variables track characteristics that may have influenced the decision to strike or accept a juror such as their relationship to the police or whether the juror had been accused of committing a crime in the past. We wanted to see if this sample of jurors from 89 trials was similar to the larger study population of 225 trials, so we did a separate analysis of strikes against black and white jurors looking only at these 89 trials. We found strikes in the two populations to be similar. The ratio between white and black strike rates for the state in the larger study was 4.4 and is 4.8 for the trials included in the voir dire analysis. Using whether the juror was struck by the state or not as the dependent variable and the juror’s responses during voir dire as the input data, APM Reports built a logistic regression model to test the importance of the different variables on the likelihood of being struck. Though there are other variables that are significant, the regression model showed that race is a powerful indicator of whether or not a juror is likely to be struck. We found that black jurors were more than six times as likely to be struck as white jurors who answered questions in the same way.

Technologies Used

The technical infrastructure for the entire jury selection project was built in Python. We used a Django application hosted on DigitalOcean for data entry and fact-checking, jupyter notebooks for the analysis, and Python libraries for doing the math. Data visualizations were built in a combination of Python and D3.

Project members

Lead Reporter: Madeleine Baran Senior Producer: Samara Freemark Producers: Rehman Tungekar, Natalie Jablonski Reporters: Will Craft, Parker Yesko, Curtis Gilbert Editors: Chris Worthington, Catherine Winter, Dave Mann, Andy Kruse

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