Usually, CDPL prefers to write about its successes. But today, we’re sharing another part of the reality of capital defense work. This is a heartfelt letter written by CDPL’s executive director, Gretchen Engel, just after receiving the news that her client, Frank Chambers, had lost his most recent appeal.
I wanted to send you a different letter today. I wanted to tell you that CDPL client Frank Chambers won a new trial after nearly 30 years on North Carolina’s death row. I wanted to tell you that, at long last, a court recognized the exceedingly clear evidence that Black people were systematically and intentionally excluded from Mr. Chambers’ jury. Instead, I have to tell you that a judge looked at that evidence and chose to ignore it. Once again, I am confronted with the hard truth that North Carolina’s courts are often unwilling and unable to address racism in death penalty cases.
At Mr. Chambers’ 1994 trial, prosecutors used peremptory strikes to exclude six out of nine Black citizens who appeared for jury service. They subjected prospective Black jurors to racist questions, such as whether they would be criticized by their “Black friends” if they voted to convict a person of their own race. And in their private notes, prosecutors made clear that race mattered by labeling the race and gender of Black potential jurors. Here are just a few examples:
There were no comparable notes about white potential jurors. In the end, only one Black person served on Mr. Chambers’ jury.
As his lawyer, I am devastated on two levels. First, that this blatant discrimination happened to begin with. Second, that all these years later, a court has said it makes no difference whether Black citizens are denied their constitutional right to serve on a jury. It makes no difference whether my Black client got a fair trial and jury of his peers. Even when there is overwhelming evidence of racial discrimination, the state should be allowed to carry out the most extreme sentence imaginable.
The only thing that gives me hope today is Frank himself. Just after receiving the news that he had lost, he tried to comfort and encourage his legal team. Frank has lived half his life on death row. He told us he was not giving up and neither should we.
So that’s the message I’m going to leave you with today. Our clients on death row face overwhelming odds, yet they go on believing that justice is possible. As long as CDPL is here, we will continue fighting for them. Today was a hard day, but we are not giving up.
Gretchen M. Engel