Race, Justice, and the Jury System in Postbellum Virginia
In December 1877, an all-white grand jury in Patrick County, Virginia, indicted two black teenagers, Lee and Burwell Reynolds, for killing a white man. After a series of trials, an all-white trial jury convicted Lee of second-degree murder and sentenced him to prison. A separate all-white jury could not reach a verdict on Burwell, and he was returned to jail to await another trial. During the proceedings, the defendants' attorneys had protested to the county judge that their clients could not get fair trials from all-white juries. They also complained that although black men were allowed on juries by Virginia law, no blacks were even in the jury pools. The lawyers asked that special jury pools be created for their clients, but the judge denied their request. Finally, the lawyers petitioned a federal judge in the area, Alexander Rives, to move the trials to his court. In December 1878, Judge Rives agreed to the petition and had the Reynolds brothers removed from state to federal custody. Not long afterward, he charged two federal grand juries, both interracial, to investigate whether Virginia state courts had excluded blacks from juries. This, he argued, would be a violation of both the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (1868) and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875. In February and March 1879, the grand juries indicted 14 Virginia county judges, among them the judge in the Reynolds trials, for keeping the jury pools they supervised all white.
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- 2016 HBS
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