North Carolina Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Racial Justice Act Death-Penalty Cases

The North Carolina Supreme Court announced on March 2 that it will hear appeals from three of the four prisoners whose death sentences were reduced to life without parole under the state's Racial Justice Act, then reinstated after the legislature repealed the law. Passed in 2009 and repealed in 2013, the landmark legislation allowed death-row prisoners to challenge their sentences on the basis of statistical evidence of racial discrimination. Marcus Robinson (pictured), Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Tilmon Golphin all received reduced sentences in rulings by Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks. The defendants presented evidence of jury strikes or acceptances of more than 7,400 jurors from 173 capital cases tried over a twenty-year period. The study showed that for the entire period covered, prosecutors across the state consistently struck African-American jurors at approximately double the rate of other jurors, and disproportionately removed African-American jurors irrespective of their employment status, whether or not they expressed reservations on the death penalty, or whether they or a close relative had been accused of a crime. Weeks determined that the study was “valid [and] highly reliable” and showed “with remarkable consistency across time and jurisdictions” that prosecutors had systemically excluded African-Americans from juries in death-penalty cases. In 2015, the state Supreme Court vacated Weeks’ rulings and remanded the case to the Superior Court to permit more evidence to be presented. At that point, prosecutors argued that the prisoners could no longer rely on the Racial Justice Act because it had been repealed, and a new judge, Erwin Spainhour, agreed. The North Carolina Supreme Court will decide whether Spainhour's ruling stands in the cases of Robinson, Augustine, and Walters. It did not yet announce whether it will hear Golphin’s case. Two additional death-row prisoners, Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, will present related issues to the court. Their Racial Justice Act claims were filed, but not heard by a judge, before the law was repealed. James Ferguson, one of the attorneys who worked on the Racial Justice Act cases, said, “All we want is for the courts to look at the facts and make a fair decision. When you really look at the evidence, it’s clear that race is influencing how we use the death penalty in North Carolina. This is a chance for the state’s highest court to declare, definitively, that racial bias in the death penalty is an urgent civil rights issue that cannot be swept under the rug.”

BOOK: Death-Row Exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton Publishes “Heart-Wrenching Yet Ultimately Hopeful” Memoir

Anthony Ray Hinton spent thirty years confined on Alabama's death row for murders he did not commit. Three years after his exoneration and release, he has published a memoir of his life, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, that recounts stories from his childhood, the circumstances of his arrest, the travesty of his trial, how he survived and grew on death row, and how he won his freedom. The book, co-authored with Lara Love Hardin, has earned praise from Kirkus Review as an “urgent, emotional memoir from one of the longest-serving condemned death row inmates to be found innocent in America,” and "[a] heart-wrenching yet ultimately hopeful story about truth, justice, and the need for criminal justice reform." Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu called Hinton's book "an amazing and heartwarming story [that] restores our faith in the inherent goodness of humanity." The memoir begins: “There’s no way to know the exact second your life changes forever.” He was arrested in 1985 and capitally charged in connection with the murder of two fast-food restaurant managers, even though he had been working in a locked warehouse 15 miles away when that crime was committed. The prosecutor, who had a documented history of racial bias, said he could tell Hinton was guilty and "evil" just by looking at him. Hinton's incompetent trial lawyer did not know and did not research the law, and erroneously believed the court would not provide funds to hire a qualified ballistics expert to rebut the state expert's unsupported claim that the bullets that killed the victims had been fired from Hinton's gun. Instead, his lawyer hired a visually impaired "expert" who did not know how to properly use a microscope, whose testimony was destroyed in front of the jury. Hinton was convicted and sentenced to death. Hinton speaks candidly about the psychological effect executions of other prisoners had on him as he feared execution for crimes he did not commit. Writing about the 1987 execution of Alabama prisoner Wayne Ritter, Hinton says, “I didn’t even realize they had executed [him] until I smelled his burned flesh.” Faced with this gruesome reality, Hinton realized, “I wasn’t ready to die. I wasn’t going to make it that easy on them.” In 2002, three top firearms examiners testified that the bullets could not be matched to Hinton's gun, and may not have come from a single gun at all. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Hinton had been provided substandard representation and returned his case to the state courts for further proceedings. Prosecutors decided not to retry him after the state's new experts said they could not link the bullets to Hinton's gun. Hinton's lead attorney in the efforts to overturn his conviction and obtain his freedom was Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy. In the forward to The Sun Does Shine, Stevenson writes that Hinton’s story “is situated amid racism, poverty, and an unreliable criminal justice system.” Hinton, he writes, "presents the narrative of a condemned man shaped by a painful and tortuous journey around the gates of death, who nonetheless remains hopeful, forgiving, and faithful." Hinton—the 152nd person exonerated from America's death rows since 1973—says he hopes his story will increase public awareness of the risks of executing the innocent and the irreparable failures of the nation's capital-punishment system. "The death penalty is broken," he writes, "and you are either part of the death squad or you are banging on the bars.”

Researcher: Racial Disparities Require Abolishing or Severely Restricting Death Penalty

Severely restricting the use of capital punishment or abolishing the death penalty altogether would help rectify some of the persistent racial disparities found in the United States' criminal justice system, according to Cassia Spohn (pictured), the Foundation Professor of Criminology and Director of the School of Criminology & Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. In a chapter on Race and Sentencing Disparity in the recently released Academy for Justice four-volume study, Reforming Criminal JusticeSpohn—the author of How Do Judges Decide? The Search for Fairness and Justice in Punishmentwrites that there is “clear and convincing evidence of racial disparity in the application of the death penalty” in the United States. Spohn's chapter traces the theoretical and methodological development in research into the relationship between race/ethnicity and sentencing over the past eight decades. She concludes that “reducing racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing and punishment requires something more than the passage of legislation designed to reduce incrementally the discretion of prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials." She recommends three major reforms "to reduce both the punitive bite of incarceration and the disparity in punishment": eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, abolishing the death penalty, and enacting Racial Justice Acts that would allow judges to consider whether racial bias played a role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty and permit prisoners to challenge their sentences with statistical evidence showing a pattern of racial discrimination in sentencing. Spohn cites demographic evidence that, she says, convincingly demonstrates clear racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty in the United States. In 2016, 41.8% of the 2,905 prisoners under sentence of death in the United States and more than a third of those executed since 1977 (34.5%) were Black, although African Americans make up only 13% of the population. Similarly, she writes, those who murder White victims are sentenced to death and executed at disproportionately high rates: from 1977 through 2016, 75.6% of executed prisoners were convicted of killing White victims, as compared to 15.3% who were convicted of killing Black victims, and 6.9% convicted of killing Hispanics. The disparities, she found, were "particularly pronounced" in the use of the death penalty for rape, before the Supreme Court declared that practice unconstitutional in 1977. Between 1930 and 1972, 455 people were executed for rape; 405 of them (89%) were Black men and a number of states did not execute a single White man for rape during this period. Spohn argues that Racial Justice Acts could provide important safeguards in addressing discriminatory death-penalty practices. However, she writes, efforts to enact them have largely failed. The U.S. House of Representatives included a Racial Justice Act as part of the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994, but it was removed by the Senate, where opponents "argued that it would effectively abolish the death penalty in the United States." Only Kentucky and North Carolina enacted state Racial Justice Acts, and the North Carolina legislature repealed its act in 2013 after four death row prisoners established that race had been a significant factor in their sentencing. Spohn concludes that "[t]he defeat of the Racial Justice Act in Congress and the failure of the issue to gain traction in the states, coupled with persuasive evidence of racial disparity in the application of the death penalty, suggest that the remedy for racial bias in the capital sentencing process is abolition of the death penalty."

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

On Martin Luther King Day, DPIC looks at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's views on the death penalty. Dr. King's philosophy of non-violence had no room for capital punishment. In one of his most famous sermons, "Loving Your Enemies," Dr. King preached: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." In 1952, Jeremiah Reeves, a 16-year-old African-American Montgomery, Alabama high school student was arrested for allegedly raping a white woman with whom he was having an affair. The teen was interrogated for two days, deprived of sleep, strapped into an electric chair, and told the only way to escape the death penalty was to confess. He did so, then recanted. The trial judge barred the defense from telling the all-white jury the circumstances of the "confession," and Reeves was sentenced to death. Six years later, Alabama executed him. On Easter Sunday 1958, nine days after the execution, Dr. King preached to a crowd of 2,000 on the steps of the state capitol about the "tragic and unsavory injustice." Dr. King said: "A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence." Dr. King continued: "But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront everyday in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice. ... Truth may be cruficied and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope." According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 455 people were executed for rape in the United States between 1930 and the Supreme Court's decision declaring the nation's death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972. 405 (89.1%) were black. The use of the death penalty for rape remained almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon: 443 of the executions for rape (97.4%) occurred in former Confederate states. Noting the different punishment of blacks and whites for allegations of interracial rape, Dr. King later wrote in his memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, it was "[f]or good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man's justice." In a November 1957 interview Ebony asked Dr. King: "Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?" He responded, "I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included.... Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God." 

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Federal Appeals Court to Reconsider Case Involving Racially Biased Juror

The U.S. Supreme Court has directed a federal appeals court to reconsider whether Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe (pictured) is entitled to federal court review of his claim that he was unconstitutionally sentenced to death because he is black. On January 8, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 opinion sending Tharpe's case—in which a racist juror used an offensive slur to describe the defendant and doubted whether African Americans have souls—back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit for further consideration whether the federal courts should hear his claim of juror bias. Seven years after Tharpe was sentenced to death, his attorneys obtained a sworn affidavit reviewed and initialed by Barney Gattie, a white man who served as a juror at Tharpe's trial. In his statement, Gattie said, "After studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls," and, "there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Ni[**]ers." Gattie also expressed his belief that Tharpe "wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, [and] should get the electric chair for what he did." According to Gattie, the victim was one of the "nice black folks," but "[i]f [the victim] had been the type Tharpe is, then picking between life and death for Tharpe wouldn’t have mattered so much." Despite these statements, the Georgia state courts rejected Tharpe’s racial-bias claim after prosecutors obtained a second affidavit from Gattie asserting that he was not a bigot. State prosecutors have not denied that Gattie made these statements, but have attempted to defend them by saying that Gattie had been drinking when he signed the affidavit. The Georgia federal courts had also denied Tharpe relief on the claim, deferring to the fact-finding of the state courts that Gattie's bigoted statements were not prejudicial. However, in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two major cases that Tharpe said required the federal courts to reconsider his claim:  Buck v. Davis, a Texas death-penalty case in which the racially biased testimony of an expert witness created an unacceptable risk that Buck was sentenced to death because he was black, and Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, a case that overturned a state-court rule that prevented defendants from using racially biased statements made by a juror as evidence of juror misconduct during deliberations. Georgia was scheduled to execute Tharpe in September 2017, but the Supreme Court granted him a last-minute stay to decide whether to review his case. The Court ultimately accepted review of the case, issued a per curiam ruling in Tharpe v. Sellers  without further briefing or argument, and returned the case to the Eleventh Circuit, which must now consider whether to issue a Certificate of Appealability—a procedural prerequisite to considering an issue on appeal. Brian Kammer, Tharpe's attorney, said, "We are thankful that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the serious implications for fundamental fairness of the clear evidence of racial animus on the part of one of the jurors who sentenced Mr. Tharpe to death." Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch, criticizing the Court for interfering in the case and failing to respect the lower courts' judgments.

Clark County, Nevada Losing Capital Convictions Because of Prosecutors' Race Discrimination in Jury Selection

The racially discriminatory jury selection practices of the Clark County, Nevada, District Attorney's office are now causing it to lose convictions in capital cases. In a December 18 article, the prosecutorial watchdog, The Open File, details repeated violations by Clark County death-penalty prosecutors of the constitutional proscription against striking prospective jurors from service on the basis of race. Four times in the past four years, the Nevada Supreme Court has ordered new trials in Clark County cases because prosecutors violated the U.S. Supreme Court's 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky  by discriminatorily excluding jurors of color, including in three cases in which the death penalty had been imposed. The Open Files writes that “prosecutors in the Clark County District Attorney’s office either do not know, ignore, or gamble on Batson, unsuccessfully hoping the courts will not hold them accountable to it.” In June 2014, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed the conviction and death sentence of Charles Conner, after prosecutors used six of their nine peremptory strikes against jurors of color, claiming that the jurors were “weak” on the death penalty. The court ruled that this purportedly race-neutral justification was pretextual, noting that one of the black jurors to whom prosecutors claimed the justification applied was an Air Force Reserve officer and full-time correctional officer, who had previously served in the Navy and as a police officer. The court found that the prosecutors' explanations for striking this juror were "belied by the record" and that manufacturing "[a] race-neutral explanation that is belied by the record is evidence of purposeful discrimination.” In March 2016, the court granted African-American death-row prisoner Jason McCarty a new trial after Clark County prosecutors excluded two of three eligible black jurors, pretextually attempting to justifying the strikes on the grounds that one worked in a strip club and the other had a brother with a criminal record. However, prosecuters had run detailed employment background checks on only two of the 36 potential jurors, suggesting to the court that prosecutors had not been genuinely concerned about the excluded juror's employment. The prosecutors also disparately questioned jurors whose family members had criminal histories, asking the black juror whom they struck 15 follow-up questions, while asking a similarly-situated white juror a single follow-up question. In granting McCarty a new trial, the court observed: “Discriminatory jury selection is particularly concerning in capital cases where each juror has the power to decide whether the defendant is deserving of the ultimate penalty, death.” In October 2017, the court also granted a new trial to third death-row prisoner, Julius Bradford, after the trial court had permitted the prosecution to strike one Hispanic and one African-American juror without providing the defense an opportunity to contest the race-based nature of the strikes.

History of Lynchings of Mexican Americans Provides Context for Recent Challenges to U.S. Death Penalty

From 1846 to 1870, more than 100 men and women were hanged on the branches of the notorious "Hanging Tree" in Goliad, Texas. Many were Mexicans or Mexican Americans and many were killed by lynching. In a November 25 op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News, historian Alfredo Torres, Jr. writes that these public killings are a reminder that "the noose, [which] has been identified as emblematic of violence and oppression toward African-Americans, [is] often overlooked as a symbol of terror for Mexican-Americans." Torres says that no region experienced more lynchings of Mexican Americans than Southern Texas, and the public spectacles on the Goliad County Courthouse lawn (pictured), now an historic landmark and tourist attraction, were witnessed by Anglo families "in a carnival-like atmosphere, bringing picnic baskets and taking photos." Lynchings of more than 871 Mexican Americans are documented across 13 Western and Southwestern states after the Civil War. But Torres says "these numbers don’t compare to what was done in Texas," where historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb estimate that more than 5,000 Mexican Americans were murdered between 1910 to 1920. That wave of terror included numerous extra-judicial lynchings and murders of Mexican Americans by vigilantes, local law-enforcement officers, and Texas Rangers. Texas A & M-Kingsville journalism professor Manuel Flores wrote in an October 2017 column in the Corpus Cristi Caller-Times that the death and legend of Josefa “Chipita” Rodriguez—framed for the 1863 ax murder of a White cotton merchant and horse trader in what was still Confederate Texas—symbolizes the racial violence against Mexican Americans in the state and "are as pertinent to the state of Texas as that of the Alamo and Goliad stories." Rodriguez was falsely accused of murder and the theft of $600 after the dismembered body of John Savage was found on the banks of the river near her traveler's lodge. Though there was no evidence of her involvement in the murder and she insisted “No soy culpable" ("I'm not guilty"), she was quickly tried, sentenced, and hanged. In 1985, the Texas Legislature adopted a resolution absolving Rodríguez of the murder, and Gov. Mark White signed the resolution, posthumously pardoning her on June 13, 1985. Cardigan and Webb say that widespread lynchings of Mexican Americans persisted into the 1920s, "eventually declining largely because of pressure from the Mexican government." Issues of racial bias against Mexicans and others of Latino descent in the administration of the death penalty in the U.S. persist. 122 Latino prisoners have been executed in the United States since 1985. Texas has carried out 84.4% of those executions (103), including the controversial execution of Mexican national Ruben Ramírez Cárdenas on November 8, in violation of international treaty obligations to have permitted him to obtain consular assistance from his government. 373 Latino/a prisoners are on state or federal death rows across the United States, with three-quarters sentenced to death in California (188), Texas (67), or Arizona (27). A challenge to the constitutionality of Arizona's death penalty, filed by Abel Daniel Hidalgo, is currently pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. His petition presents evidence that in Arizona, "a Hispanic man accused of killing a white man is 4.6 times as likely to be sentenced to death as a white man accused of killing a Hispanic victim." The Court will consider during its December 1 conference meeting whether to accept Hidalgo's case for review.

Anti-Death Penalty District Attorney Elected in Philadelphia, the Nation's 3rd Largest Death Penalty County

Philadelphia, Pennsylvaniathe nation's third largest death-penalty county—has elected as its new district attorney a candidate who ran on a platform of ending mass incarceration and eschewing use of the death penalty. Democrat Lawrence Krasner (pictured), a longtime civil rights lawyer and opponent of the death penalty, who once joked that he’d “spent a career becoming completely unelectable,” received 75% of the vote in easily defeating his Republican opponent Beth Grossman. As a civil rights and criminal defense attorney, Krasner had represented political protesters and Black Lives Matter activists, and had sued the Philadelphia Police Department on numerous occasions. He has likened use of the death penalty to "lighting money on fire,” saying that capital punishment “has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $1 billion, yet no one on Pennsylvania’s death row has been put to death involuntarily since 1962.” A July 2015 DPIC analysis of death sentences imposed in Philadelphia reported that at least 148 death sentences imposed in the city since Pennsylvania reinstituted the death penalty in 1974 had been overturned. In that time, one prisoner from Philadelphia—who voluntarily dropped his appeals—was executed. Krasner called his election a "mandate" for "transformational change." He said, "[t]his is a story about a movement. And this is a movement that is tired of seeing a system that has systematically picked on poor people—primarily black and brown poor people." Those are the people who, historically, have been most disproportionately affected by Philadelphia's death penalty. A major study of Philadelphia's death penalty in the 1980s and 1990s documented that black capital defendants faced more than triple the odds of being sentenced to death than did other defendants, and that an estimated one-third of the more than 100 African Americans who were on the city's death row at the turn of the century would have received life sentences but for their race. Another study showed that death-sentencing in the city was heavily influenced by a defendant's physical appearance: the probability that a black defendant charged with killing a white victim would be sentenced to death doubled if the defendant was perceived as having "stereotypically African" physical features—darker skin, a broader nose, and thicker lips. Even as the number of death sentences imposed in Philadelphia has dramatically declined—falling from an average of 9.9 death sentences per year in the 1990s to less than one sentence per year this decade—the racial disproportionality of the death sentences imposed in the city has grown. Nine of the 99 death sentences imposed in Philadelphia in the 1990s were directed at white defendants, as compared to only one of the 25 death sentences imposed this century, and 45 of the last 47 people sentenced to death in the city have been defendants of color.