Barry Scheck: Stunning new case highlights how race bias corrupts juries

Exclusive: Leading wrongful convictions expert on what's at stake in a sweeping, upcoming North Carolina decision

Topics: Wrongful Conviction, juries, jury system, Race, Racism, Bias, Editor's Picks, North Carolina, Criminal Justice, ,

Barry Scheck: Stunning new case highlights how race bias corrupts juriesBarry Scheck (Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)

Last month, Glenn Ford, an African-American man, walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary after spending thirty years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. One of the most important contributing factors to his death sentence? Racial discrimination in the selection of his all-white jury. In a community that is almost half African-American, the prosecutor struck African-American jurors with the flimsiest of excuses.

That kind of bias not only contributes to guilty verdicts for the innocent, it tilts the playing field toward death, particularly for defendants of color.

In North Carolina, the state Supreme Court has a chance to show the country that race bias should not be allowed to corrupt our jury system. Yesterday, that court’s justices heard arguments about three African-Americans and one Lumbee Indian who are serving life without parole, thanks to a lower court ruling that the discrimination in jury selection was a significant factor in their death sentences. The State of North Carolina would like to erase those facts and send the prisoners back to death row. Now the court will decide whether to recognize or ignore the dangers of racial discrimination in jury selection.

The four prisoners in the case have uncovered a mountain of evidence of discrimination in their cases and county, including a prosecutor’s handwritten notes in one of their cases. In it, he described prospective jurors differently by race. The white “country boy” who “drank” was “ok,” in contrast to the “black wino” who was excluded. Another African-American juror was “ok” because she was from “a respectable black family.”

The evidence also contained an unprecedented study of race and jury selection in North Carolina. Researchers found across the state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, rampant racial discrimination against African-American jurors by the prosecution was the norm. After their success, the law that allowed their appeals on the basis of discrimination jury selection, the Racial Justice Act, was repealed. Not satisfied, the State of North Carolina is attempting to make the important victories in these four cases disappear.

The State’s arguments yesterday were a knotty mess of technical legal points. They had no defense to the basic facts of rampant discrimination.



Of course, this is not a problem limited to North Carolina. Across the country, discrimination in jury selection is an open secret. The Supreme Court has banned the practice in theory, but in reality, this discrimination continues unchecked. Prosecutors in capital cases nationwide successfully justify removing qualified African-American jurors because of the way they dress, their eye contact, because they are too old, or too young, because they work full-time, or stay at home, or are retired.

As a result, we too often get all-white juries or juries with one or two jurors of color. Research conducted across the country tells us that these juries deliberate less than diverse juries drawn from a range of backgrounds. The all-white or nearly all-white juries are more likely to rush to judgment and are more likely to get it wrong. We know there is a strong link between all-white juries and conviction of the innocent. And we know that diverse juries are more likely to challenge one another, and less likely to fall back on what may be unconscious stereotypes. Mistaken eyewitness identification, a major contributor to wrongful convictions, is more likely to be accepted by non-diverse juries.

Southern African-American men bear the heaviest burdens of wrongful convictions nationwide. People of color are exonerated at rates that are disproportionately high, even when their overrepresentation among prisoners is taken into account. The explanations lie not only with discriminatory charging practices of the police and prosecution, but also the conscious and unconscious decision making of jurors.

In North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, we had the first law in the nation that banned racial discrimination in jury selection in capital cases. It allowed defendants to use the same tool—statistical evidence of discrimination—that has allowed advocates to reform discriminatory housing, education, and employment practices.

Elsewhere, states like Alabama and Ohio are considering their own versions of the Racial Justice Act. And Washington State is working on a radical overhaul of jury selection to avoid racial bias—eliminating entirely the power of lawyers to remove jurors they don’t like.

Now in North Carolina, it is up to the state’s Supreme Court to acknowledge the evidence of discrimination in the cases that had the benefit of the Racial Justice Act. The superior court judge who had re-sentenced the prisoners to life without parole was overwhelmed by the evidence of pervasive and persistent bias. He wrote, “The Court takes hope that the acknowledgement of this ugly truth of race discrimination … is the first step in creating a system of justice that is free from the pernicious influence of race, a system that truly lives up to our ideal of equal justice under the law.” That judgment must stand.

Barry Scheck is the Co-Director of the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent further injustice.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...