In overturning Black man’s conviction, WA Supreme Court reaffirms what it means to have a jury of one’s peers.

Thursday, July 27, 2023
a circular photo of legal scales set against a light pink backdrop
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees us all a fair trial in front of a jury of our peers. But what does it mean to have a jury of your peers — people like yourself, from your community — deciding your fate at trial?

We’re hopeful a recent court decision clarified and reaffirmed that right for Black and brown defendants in Washington state. In May, the Washington State Supreme Court overturned a 65-year-old Black man’s conviction, nearly two decades after he alleged racial discrimination in the jury selection process for his trial.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys at Theodore Rhone’s 2005 trial agreed to remove one of the two Black potential jurors from a jury pool of 41 people. Prosecutors then removed the remaining Black potential juror. Rhone objected to that decision and asked the judge for a new jury with “someone that represents my culture as well as your culture.”

“I don’t mean to be facetious or disrespectful or a burden to the Court,” Rhone said at his trial. “However, I do want a jury of my peers. And I notice that [the prosecutor took away the Black, African-American, man off the jury.”

Rhone told the judge “To have this the way it is…seems unfair to me. It’s not a jury of my peers…I am an African-American Black male, 48 years old. I would like someone of culture, of color, that has — perhaps may have had to deal with [improprieties] and so forth, to understand what’s going on and what could be happening in this trial.”

Rhone’s request for a new jury was denied, and the jury convicted him and sentenced him to life without parole. He appealed his conviction, raising the same concerns of racial bias. He also fought for a new bright line rule establishing that whenever the State strikes the only or last remaining potential juror of a knowable racial group without an explanation, that action alone is sufficient to establish discrimination.

The Washington Supreme Court denied Rhone’s appeal in 2010, but in their 2017 ruling in Seattle v. Erickson, affirmed the very rule Rhone wanted to establish — even calling it the “Rhone Rule.” The court’s decision now to overturn Rhone’s convictions allows him to finally benefit from that rule.

“Recalling the mandate in the unique circumstances of Rhone’s case accomplishes this mission; we must allow him to benefit from the rule he proposed that ultimately became the law in this state,” Justice Susan Owens wrote in the court’s opinion.

We applaud the court’s decision. When juries have diverse makeups, it allows them to draw from various lived experiences, and offer greater perspectives.

Studies have shown that all-white juries spend less time deliberating, make more errors, and consider fewer perspectives. They also convict at higher rates and convict Black defendants at higher rates than other defendants specifically.

“Ensuring that a diverse jury is drawn from a venire that is representative assures that the decision rendered is based on the law and the facts, rather than on bias,” our organization wrote in an amicus brief in support of Rhone, adding that “Mr. Rhone’s unsuccessful challenge to the last remaining Black juror being struck from his venire directly resulted in him facing a jury that was undoubtedly less likely to debate and consider uncomfortable issues related to race and acknowledge and mitigate implicit biases than that of a diverse jury.”

The court’s decision is the correct step toward racial justice and equity. In announcing the reversal of Rhone’s convictions, the state Supreme Court also ordered a new trial.

Rhone will finally have a jury of his peers, as the law and constitution intended.