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success, the law that allowed their appeals on the basis of discrimination jury selection, the Racial Justice Act, was repealed.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.