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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 23, 2016
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U.S. Supreme Court ruling Will Force N.C. to Confront Racial Bias in Capital Cases
Decision in Georgia cases could compel new hearings on exclusion of blacks from juries
Durham, NC — A ruling today by the U.S. Supreme Court could give North Carolina death row inmates new avenues to challenge racial bias in capital trials and will force the state to confront discriminatory jury selection practices.
The Court ruled 7-1 today in a Georgia case, Foster v. Chatman, that prosecutors violated the Constitution by purposefully excluding African-Americans from the jury in a capital case, and that the Georgia courts erred by refusing to consider evidence proving that discrimination.
In the Georgia case, the prosecutor struck all four potential black jurors. While he gave the court “race-neutral” reasons for his strikes, the prosecutor’s notes showed that he highlighted the names of black jurors, marked them with a letter “B,” and put them first on his list of jurors to strike. The prosecution also ranked the African Americans in case “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.” Similar evidence of discrimination in jury selection has been uncovered in North Carolina.
“Today, the court sent a message that we must stop making excuses and start enforcing the law against discrimination in jury selection,” said Ken Rose, senior attorney at The Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “The privilege and obligation to serve on a jury, regardless of race, is fundamental to our democracy. Yet, African-Americans in North Carolina are routinely denied the right to participate in the most important decisions our criminal justice system ever makes.”
Lawyers who specialize in the death penalty say the ruling will give many death-sentenced men and women new rights to bring forward evidence of racial discrimination in jury selection at their own trials. Such evidence is usually barred if it is not introduced during the initial trial.
The ruling will also compel North Carolina courts to more vigorously enforce laws that prohibit race discrimination in jury selection. The N.C. Supreme Court has heard more than 100 cases where prosecutors were accused of intentionally striking minority jurors, but it has never found a prosecutor’s explanation for striking a black juror to be a cover for race discrimination, despite compelling evidence that the practice of excluding black jurors is prevalent.
“It has been illegal for three decades to exclude jurors based on race, but the reality is our courts have refused to enforce that law,” Rose said. “The U.S. Supreme Court said today that we cannot continue to ignore this blatant racism in our death penalty system.”
North Carolina tried to remedy the problem of discrimination in jury selection in 2009, with the passage of the N.C. Racial Justice Act, which allowed death row inmates to present statistical proof that African Americans were systematically excluded from their juries. Because of the Racial Justice Act, North Carolina death row inmates have uncovered even stronger evidence of discrimination in jury selection than in the Georgia case:
- In a Cumberland County case, defense attorneys discovered a prosecutor’s handwritten notes that labeled prospective jurors with terms like “blk wino” and “blk, high drug neighborhood.”
- In a Forsyth County case, prosecutors struck all but a single black juror. According to a handwritten note attached to that juror’s questionnaire, he was accepted because he attended a “multiracial” church, rather than a black one, and went to “predominantly white schools.”
- Several N.C. prosecutors were found to have attended a training, sponsored by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, where they were given a cheat sheet of “race-neutral” excuses that they could use to justify their illegal strikes of black jurors.
- A comprehensive statewide study of capital cases from 1990-2010 found that prosecutors removed qualified black jurors from jury pools at more than twice the rate of white jurors. The disparity was even more pronounced when the defendant was black.
The evidence uncovered in North Carolina was compelling enough to be cited in legal briefs filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the Foster case.
The Racial Justice Act was repealed in 2013. More than 100 death row inmates who filed motions under the law are still pursuing their claims in court, but most have so far gone unheard.
“The Supreme Court today reaffirmed the importance of the evidence those defendants uncovered,” said Rose. “North Carolina courts must finally begin to take this critical issue seriously. The illegal practice of excluding African Americans from jury service must end.”