Swain vs Alabama


Topics Addressed

  1. Estimation of Proportions
  2. Law

In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Swain vs. Alabama. Swain, a black man, was convicted in Talladega County, Alabama, of raping a white woman. He was sentenced to death. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court on the grounds that there were no blacks on the jury; moreover, no black "within the memory of persons now living has ever served on any petit jury in any civil or criminal case tried in Talladega County, Alabama."

The Supreme Court denied the appeal, on the following grounds. As provided by Alabama law, the jury was selected from a panel of about 100 persons. There were 8 blacks on the panel. (They did not serve on the jury because they were "struck," or removed, through a maneuver called peremptory challenges by the prosecution. Such challenges were until quite recently constitutionally protected.) The Supreme Court ruled that the presence of 8 blacks on the panel showed "The overall percentage disparity has been small and reflects no studied attempt to include or exclude a specified number of blacks."

At that time in Alabama, only men over the age of 21 were eligible for jury duty (!). There were 16,000 such men in Talladega County, of whom about 26% were black.

If 100 people were chosen by simple random sampling from this population, what is the chance that 8% or fewer would be black?
What do you conclude about the Supreme Court's opinion?
Explain briefly.

This case has been back in the news more recently -- the Court ruled not long ago that peremptory challenges, by either the prosecution or the defense, solely on the basis of race are unconstitutional. This came a long time too late for Swain, who was put to death in 1966.


George Michailides