ARTICLES: Excluding Blacks from Death Penalty Juries Violates Rights As Citizens

An article in the most recent issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review examines the practice of excluding African-Americans from jury service, particularly in death penalty cases in North Carolina. In Bias in the Box, Dax-Devlon Ross notes, “Alongside the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury is an enduring pillar of our democracy….Nevertheless, there is perhaps no arena of public life where racial bias has been as broadly overlooked or casually tolerated as jury exclusion.” Ross traces the history of civil rights litigation that secured blacks the right to participate in juries, but he also shows the continued use of strategies to remove them from service. In particular, the repeal of North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act in 2013 removed an important protection of equality in jury service. Before the act was rescinded, a special court reduced the sentences of four death row inmates because of patterns of racial bias in jury selection. In one case, a prosecutor’s notes described potential jurors as “blk wino - drugs” and as living in a “blk, high drug” neighborhood. Ross quotes a number of potential black jurors who wanted to serve in North Carolina but felt they were excluded because of their race.

The article also recounts the case of Darryl Hunt, a black man who was exonerated through DNA evidence in 2003 after spending nearly 20 years in prison for a rape and murder. His trial took place in Winston-Salem, whose population is about 35% black. However, of the 60 jurors and alternates selected in Hunt’s four trials, only one was black.

(D. Ross, “Bias in the Box,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2014; DPIC posted Oct. 2, 2014). See Race and Arbitrariness.