FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Feb. 6, 2023
For more information contact: Gretchen M. Engel, firstname.lastname@example.org, (919) 682-3983
RALEIGH, NC — On Feb. 8, the North Carolina Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Russell Tucker, a Black man who was sentenced to death in 1996 by an all-white jury in Forsyth County and remains on death row. His attorneys will present evidence that prosecutors excluded Black citizens from the jury because of their race, in violation of federal law.
“The exclusion of Black people from juries is a long-standing problem in North Carolina stretching back to the days of Jim Crow,” said Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, which represents Mr. Tucker. “But rarely is the evidence so clear as in Mr. Tucker’s case. The prosecutor cited vague and nonsensical justifications to remove one Black citizen after another from the jury, belittling them in open court and denying them the right to serve in a life-and-death trial.”
Mr. Tucker’s is one of four cases to be heard in the state Supreme Court Wednesday, all of which involve evidence that citizens were excluded from juries based on race. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky that it is unconstitutional to remove a juror because of race. However, the law has gone largely unenforced in North Carolina. Until 2022, a North Carolina conviction had never been overturned because of discrimination against a juror of color.
The lack of enforcement allowed prosecutors to strike Black and Brown jurors with impunity. About half of the 137 people on North Carolina’s death row were convicted by juries that were all white or had only a single person of color.
In Mr. Tucker’s case, the prosecutor removed all five Black citizens from the jury pool. When questioned about the strikes, he cited vague reasons such as the jurors’ body language or failure to make eye contact. He said one juror was “monosyllabic” because he responded to yes-no questions with only a single word.
He said that a Black working mother who had lived her whole life in Forsyth County had no “stake in the community” because she rented her home, wasn’t registered to vote, and her spouse had been at his job for only four months. The judge allowed this strike, even though the prosecutor accepted a white juror who was also a renter, five white jurors who were not registered to vote, and two white jurors whose spouses were unemployed.
Mr. Tucker’s attorneys later discovered that many of these reasons were taken directly from a handout given to prosecutors during a training session. This handout provided a list of excuses prosecutors could draw from to disguise their race-based jury strikes.
Juries lacking racial diversity have been shown to convict more easily and sentence more people to death, sometimes in cases where the defendants are innocent. In 1997, Alfred Rivera was tried capitally by the same Forsyth County prosecutor who tried Mr. Tucker’s case. Two years after being sentenced to death, Mr. Rivera was exonerated and freed. Mr. Rivera, who is Latino, said that during jury selection for his trial, he watched the prosecutor work to remove people of color, especially young men.
“The prosecutor used every excuse to get rid of people who might understand and relate to me,” Rivera said. “I ended up with a jury that couldn’t see me as a person. To them, I was just a ‘usual suspect’ and it was easy to believe I was guilty. Because I didn’t have a jury of my peers, I spent two years on death row for a crime I didn’t commit.”
Rev. James Baker of Clayton, a leader in the Johnston County branch of the NAACP, said he is troubled at the evidence that Black people continue to be excluded from juries. “Black people deserve to have their voices heard, both in the ballot box and in the courtroom,” Baker said. “Discrimination on juries is yet another way that the death penalty’s legacy of white supremacy continues today. As Dr. King said, ‘Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’”