Wanted: Angela Davis and a Jury of Her Peers

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
AuthorSonali Chakravarti
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(3) 380 –402
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720944877
Wanted: Angela Davis
and a Jury of Her Peers
Sonali Chakravarti1
In 1972 Angela Davis stood trial on charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and
murder before a White jury. A professor of philosophy, a Communist, and
a member of the Black Panther Party, she had no reason to believe that
any of the jurors were her peers. Yet, after three days of deliberation, they
returned a Not Guilty verdict on each of the counts. Through an analysis
of the case, this essay argues for a new approach to peerhood that defines
it as a combination of (1) demographic similarities to the defendant and (2)
a worldview orientation of contestation and anticorruption that emerges
from the jury’s function in the trial. Greater clarity on how these factors
are important for peerhood provides insights into how jurors can best fulfill
their role and what remedies are necessary to achieve a jury of one’s peers.
Angela Davis, jury, trial, Supreme Court, peer
There are no Black people sitting on the jury. Although I cannot say that this is
a jury of my peers, I can say that, after much discussion, we have reached the
conclusion that the women and men sitting on the jury will put forth their best
efforts to give me a fair trial.1
—Angela Davis, 1972
1Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sonali Chakravarti, Wesleyan University, 236 Church St, Middletown, CT 06457, USA.
Email: schakravarti@wesleyan.edu
944877PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720944877Political TheoryChakravarti
Chakravarti 381
Angela Davis, a professor of philosophy at UCLA fired for her affiliation
with the Communist Party and one-time member of the Black Panthers, went
underground in August of 1970. She disappeared from the public eye for two
months after a warrant for her arrest was issued by the FBI. The Wanted
poster read: “Angela Davis is wanted on kidnapping and murder charges
growing out of an abduction and shooting in Marin County, California. She
allegedly has purchased several guns in the past. Consider possibly armed
and dangerous.” After her eventual arrest in New York City, the case against
Angela Davis continued to be national news because of the protests around
the world advocating for her innocence and calling for her to be released on
bail while she awaited trial. Her trial was a symbolic event that tested whether
all Americans—even a Black feminist, communist, philosophy professor—
could be treated fairly in a court of law.
The incident in the Marin courthouse was led by Jonathan Jackson, in soli-
darity with the Soledad Brothers, three inmates at Soledad Prison who were
accused of killing a prison guard in 1970. In their name, Jackson led an upris-
ing in the courtroom where he armed the defendants and then took a judge,
the prosecutor, and three jurors hostage. In Jackson’s attempt to drive away
from the courthouse with the hostages, the police opened fire; the shootout
resulted in the deaths of the judge and the three defendants. One of the jurors
and the prosecutor were also injured. A friend of Jackson’s and romantically
linked to his brother, Davis had, in fact, bought some of the guns used in the
incident. After a change in the location of the trial, from Marin to Santa Clara
County, because it was thought that it would be difficult to get a fair trial at a
courthouse where everyone knew the judge who had been killed, a seemingly
all-White jury was seated. Davis had no reason to believe that any of the
jurors were her peers. Yet, after a three-month trial and three days of jury
deliberation, they returned a Not Guilty verdict on each of the counts.
This is the puzzle that motivates the essay and raises the question of what
exactly it means to have a “jury of one’s peers.” While the logic of a defen-
dant’s right to a trial by jury is taken as a meaningful tradition within the
American legal system, the full significance of a “jury of one’s peers” is
underexplored. The Davis case provides an unusual example of jurors who
did not appear to be peers of the defendant yet forged a different form of
affinity against the power of the state. It was a peerhood based on the struc-
tural elements of the trial and the logic of adversarialism, not just as a path to
legal truth but as a philosophy of the necessary constraints on the agents of
the state in questions of punishment. This essay will argue that the Supreme
Court has had an ambivalent relationship to the concept of a jury of peers,
using it to scaffold other requirements of the jury system (such as the prohibi-
tion against discrimination based on race) but shying away from interpreting

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