On April 28, 2022, Sonali Chakravarti, Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, delivered the William H. Timbers '37 Lecture. Speaking to an audience of about 100 Dartmouth students, faculty, and community members, Chakravarti delivered the self-titled talk, "How Woke Can a Juror Be? The Jury in the Chauvin Trial, Critiques of Law Enforcement, and a New Model of Juror Impartiality."
In her interview with Kavya Nivarthy '25, Chakravarti noted the controversial nature of her talk. In her title, "How Woke Can a Juror Be?" Chakravarti aimed to "both embody the skepticism from [opponents of wokeism], but also [embody] being aware of the empirical realities around racial discrimination in this country."
Dartmouth Government Associate Professor Julie Rose, moderating the event, remarked that Chakravarti joins an esteemed group of distinguished speakers who have delivered the William H. Timbers lecture. Chakravarti's talk, covering the Chauvin trial and the extent to which its jury selection departed from norms of the court, reflected the salience of the debate on wokeism in legal proceedings in our current political moment.
Chakravarti, whose work at Wesleyan covers law, democratic institutions, and justice, brought her expertise to a detailed description of how the Chauvin trial's jury selection process was rooted in greater attentiveness to addressing racial discrimination and social justice. Many jurors interviewed in their voir dire, Chakravarti noted, had seen the video of George Floyd's death, and others were supportive of either the Black Lives Matter movement or systemic criticisms of law enforcement. One juror, Juror 27, ultimately selected in the Chauvin case, expressed that "[Floyd] could have been me." Such attentiveness to social justice and systemic critiques of the system, Chakravarti noted, would have typically disqualified a potential juror from service. The Chauvin trial was particularly interesting as a departure from norms of the Court as it involved a critique of law enforcement, something judges are generally hesitant to support.
While much of Chakravarti's lecture covered the proceedings of the Chauvin case itself, it also outlined her argument presented in The Atlantic, that this new standard for jury selection, which allowed for an inclusion of systemic criticism, is better for our legal system. In her talk, she noted that this raises many questions, including that of juror bias.
On the question of impartiality, and whether social justice compromises a juror's ability to remain impartial, Chakravarti proposed a "new model" for juror impartiality. She suggested that considering social justice, and not disqualifying jurors for their support of movements critical of American systems, actually makes the jury more diverse, and generally more attentive to the most pressing issues in American society.
At Wesleyan, Professor Chakravarti's work continues to probe the question of the juror's changing role in the 21st century, particularly on the civic skills necessary to adapt to this role.
--Written by Kavya Nivarthy '25, Rockefeller Center Student Assistant for Public Programs