One of the minor but undeniable rewards of watching Last Week Tonight is the weekly spectacle of seeing John Oliver and his crack research team unearth representative villainy. And, in his Sunday main story about how jury selection is yet another “gear in the criminal justice system” that is “unfairly biased against people of color,” Oliver dug deep. (Like, every gear, as Oliver—citing previous Last Week Tonight stories—rattled off the inequities inherent in everything from policing, bail, public defender shortages, farcical immigration courts, bad prosecutors and Attorneys General, and mandatory minimums, to what happens when and if Black people are ever released.) And, yes, Oliver is all about comprehensive, principled, big picture analysis as a pathway to change‚ but he’s also about holding up hitherto unknown cogs in this everyday injustice engine for some well-deserved if belated abuse.
Take one Jack McMahon, a nondescript former Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia. Shown in a 1980s training video teaching prosecutors how to avoid the appearance of the newly illegal dismissal of potential jurors based on race while doing exactly that, Oliver showed how, in the leaked video, McMahon repeatedly refers to “Blacks,” says “you don’t want the real educated ones,” and teaches his colleagues that Black women can’t be trusted. Now, some might call it unfair or, you know, mean-spirited to make a public spectacle of some now-retired guy for something he said 40 years ago. (Oliver’s staff even diligently followed up with present-day McMahon, who denied any racism in what he said.) Except that, as Oliver revealed, a review of this influential gear in a criminal justice system that determined the fates of countless people employed a jury selection strategy that excluded Black jurors at a rate equal to a one-in-a quadrillion numerical chance. Yeah, so fuck that guy. (And fuck current Oliver target, Mississippi District Attorney Doug Evans, who has now tried the same Black man six times without getting a conviction, despite excluding 41 of the 42 Black potential jurors from all those trials.)
Of course, such specific illustrations of how the American justice system is built to reinforce white supremacy by making sure that Black defendants face “impartial juries of their peers” unrepresentative of their peers are just isolated examples. But Oliver, as is his way, zooms in and out, showing how the big and small pictures are interconnected. With everything from straight-up governmental incompetence (like the 9-year-old summoned for jury duty), to low-budget, poorly overseen private jury selection contractors (where a typo wiped the majority-minority populations of two Connecticut cities from jury lists), to straight-up exclusion be design (DMV and voter registration data is guaranteed to shave off a third of potential Black jurors), Oliver showed once more that this whole broken system is in need of a serious overhaul. As Oliver put it in wrapping up, having a diverse, actually representative jury might make a prosecutor’s job more difficult (since, as he pointed to in one study, not all-white juries have proven to take the time to actually discuss evidence and underlying issues more thoroughly), but, as he also put it, “the role of a court is not to make it fucking easy by having cases heard by only a group of white people.”