Circuit Court Overturns South Carolina Death Sentence for Prosecutor's Racially Inflammatory Argument

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has upheld a federal district court's decision ordering a new sentencing hearing for Johnny Bennett, a black man who was sentenced to death by an all-white South Carolina jury in a trial tainted by a prosecutor's racially-inflammatory cross-examination and argument. Bennett was prosecuted by Donald Myers (pictured), known as “Death Penalty Donnie” for having sent 28 South Carolina defendants to death row. In response to defense argument at Bennett's sentencing proceedings in 2000 that Bennett would not pose a future danger to society if incarcerated for life, Myers repeatedly invoked violent animal references, calling Bennett "King Kong on a bad day," a “caveman,” a “mountain man,” a “monster,” a “big old tiger,” and “[t]he beast of burden.” Earlier in the trial, Meyers had elicited irrelevant testimony that a white witness whom Bennett had assaulted when he was a juvenile had dreamt of "being chased by black savages." The prosecuter also gratuitously asked a witness about sexual relations Bennett had had with a "blonde-headed" prison guard. A juror later described Bennett as "just a dumb ni**er." The South Carolina Supreme Court upheld Bennett's sentence, saying that the "King Kong" comment was “not suggestive of a giant black gorilla who abducts a white woman, but rather, descriptive of [Bennett’s] size and strength as they related to his past crimes.” It ruled that the jurors comments did not show that he was “racially biased at the time of the ... trial.” In March 2016, a federal district court overturned Bennett's sentence, saying that Myers had "made multiple statements clearly calculated to excite the jury with racial imagery and stereotypes." The District Court judge called Myers' arguments "a not so subtle dog whistle on race that this court cannot and will not ignore." Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, writing the Fourth Circuit opinion called Myers' comments "unmistakably calculated to inflame racial fears and apprehensions on the part of the jury." He wrote, "It is impossible to divorce the prosecutor’s 'King Kong' remark, 'caveman' label, and other descriptions of a black capital defendant from their odious historical context. And in context, the prosecutor’s comments mined a vein of historical prejudice against African-Americans, who have been appallingly disparaged as primates or members of a subhuman species in some lesser state of evolution." John Blume, who represented Bennett in the Fourth Circuit argument, said it was "antithetical to the criminal justice system for a prosecutor to pander to an all-white jury's racial fears and implicit biases."

(J. Gershman, "Appeals Court Vacates Death Sentence of Black Man Whom Prosecutor Likened to King Kong," Wall Street Journal Blog, November 21, 2016; M. Kinnard, "Appeals court: 'King Kong' comment prejudiced all-white jury," Associated Press, November 22, 2016; A. Cohen, "A Judge Overturned a Death Sentence Because the Prosecutor Compared a Black Defendant to King Kong," The Marshall Project, March 28, 2016.) Read the Fourth Circuit's decision. See Race and Prosecutorial Misconduct