Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Louisiana Case with All-White Jury and References to O.J. Simpson

On June 25, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a capital case from Louisiana in which an all-white jury sentenced a defendant to death after the prosecutor urged a death sentence so that the defendant would not "get away with it" like O.J. Simpson.  All five qualified African-Americans had been struck from the jury pool by the prosecution using peremptory challenges.  The defense has challenged the selection of the jury as a violation of equal protection.

The defendant, Allen Snyder, is black and was convicted of killing his wife's male companion in a trial that occurred within a year of the O.J. Simpson acquittal.  Jelpi Picou, executive director of the the Capital Appeals Project of Louisiana which is representing Mr. Snyder, said that, “Both a majority of the Louisiana Supreme Court and the State have denied that these statements demonstrated racially discriminatory intent” noted Mr. Picou, “because the prosecutor did not state the self-evident: that Mr. Snyder and Mr. Simpson are black. Given that Mr. Snyder’s trial took place less than a year after O.J. Simpson’s acquittal, it is difficult to imagine that the members of Mr. Snyder’s jury would not have been aware of the racially divisive nature of that case.”  The case is Snyder v. Louisiana, No. 06-10119, and it will likely be heard by Court in the fall.
(Press Release, Capital Appeals Project, June 25, 2007). Read the Press Release.  See also Race.

Read More 3,862 reads
BOOKS: "The Big Eddy Club" Explores Race and the Death Penalty

In his new book, "The Big Eddy Club: The Stocking Stranglings and Southern Justice," author David Rose examines issues of race and the death penalty. The book relates the story of Carlton Gary, who was convicted of capital murder in 1986 and remains on Georgia's death row for the rape and murder of several elderly women in Columbus, Georgia. Rose, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, links Gary's conviction to a history of bias in Columbus and the South.

"The Big Eddy Club" details the connections between past and present Southern justice and uses these links to further examine the broader issues of race, corruption, and the criminal justice system.  Rose maintains that racism in Columbus may have resulted in an unfair trial for Gary. His investigation of the case found that many of the community's prominent judges and attorneys, as well as most of the victims, were frequenters of the Big Eddy Club, an exclusive all-white club in Columbus. He also reveals a connection between the Gary case and a 1912 lynching of a black man who had been tried for murder and acquitted. Rose found that the trial judge first assigned to Gary's case in 1984 was the son of the mob leader who led the eventual lynching.
(The New Press, 2007; posted June 19, 2007). See Books and Race.

Read More 4,042 reads
Jury Strikes and Racial Bias Although the Supreme Court struck down race-based strikes of potential jurors more than two decades ago in Batson v. Kentucky, the decision has fallen short of its goal.  For example, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, a recent study has revealed that potential black jurors are struck three times as often as white jurors in the parish.  This does not include the jurors struck for being unable to follow death penalty law by the judge. A Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center review of 390 felony jury trials in the parish from 1994 to 2002 found that none of the 20 murder trials in the area, which has a population that is 23% black, since the Batson decision has had a proportionately representative number of black jurors. A closer look at 18 Jefferson Parish murder trials for which the race of jurors is available found that 10 had no black members, seven had one black member, and one had two black jurors. "Not one gets to what should be the average," said Richard Bourke, the acting director of the Center, who notes that you might expect to see about 3 black jurors on each 12-member panel.

According to a New York Times column by Adam Liptak, this pattern of racial bias may have resulted in a death sentence for Allen Snyder, who was tried for murder by an all-white jury in Jefferson Parish. In Snyder's case, prosecutors were influential in having all nine potential black jurors removed, four with cause and five utilizing peremptory strikes. Snyder has now filed a second appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court raising questions about the constitutionality of his trial. In response to his first appeal, the Justices sent his case back to the Louisiana Supreme Court, ordering the judges to take a hard look at how jury selection had been conducted. After a second review of the case, the Louisiana Supreme Court again ruled against Snyder.

At the time of the Batson decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that the ruling would not end the prevalence of race-based jury selection, while an end to peremptory strikes altogether could.
(New York Times, June 4, 2007). See Race.

Read More 4,102 reads
North Carolina Could Become Second State to Pass Racial Justice Act North Carolina's legislature recently took an important step toward becoming the nation's second state to pass a Racial Justice Act, legislation that gives defendants the opportunity to challenge the death penalty based on studies showing racial bias. The bill was quickly approved by members of the House Judiciary II Committee and will now go before the full House for consideration. The legislation is similar to legislation enacted in Kentucky in 1998 and, according to the NAACP, it targets the issue of the disproportionate number of minority inmates who face the death penalty prosecutions. "This is not about emotion. This is about empirical data. Empirical data tells us we have some serious issues," noted Rev. William Baber, the president of North Carolina's NAACP Chapter.

The proposed North Carolina Racial Justice Act would place the burden of proof on the defendant. The defendant could argue before trial that race was a significant factor in other prosecutorial decisions to seek the death penalty around the same time and in the same county or prosecutorial district. After defendants have been sentenced to death, they could present evidence that race influenced decisions to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection. Such challenges allow defense attorneys and prosecutors to reject potential jurors who they deem biased. The legislation notes that defendants would have to "state with particularity" how race played a role in their case.

Of the 185 people currently on death row in North Carolina, 53% are black.  Census figures show that the state's population of 8.7 million in 2005 was about 74% white, 22% black, 6.5% Hispanic, and 1.3% American Indian.
(Associated Press, May 9, 2007). See Race and Recent Legislative Activity.

Read More 3,084 reads

 In 1984, Deborah Sykes, a young white newspaper reporter, was sexually assaulted and murdered just blocks from where she worked in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Though no physical evidence implicated him, Darryl Hunt, a 19-year-old black man, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Such a crime is often punishable by death.

Ten years later, DNA testing proved that Hunt did not rape Sykes, and cast serious doubts on his involvement in her murder, but he spent another decade behind bars before being exonerated. The eye-opening HBO documentary THE TRIALS OF DARRYL HUNT tells his riveting story - and the story of those who fought to clear his name.

More than a decade in the making, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's THE TRIALS OF DARRYL HUNT examines the roles of race and fear in a community and in the criminal justice system.

THE TRIALS OF DARRYL HUNT premiered on Thursday, April 26, 2011 on HBO.

View the trailer to the film.

Find out more about the film.

A special screening will be held in Washington, DC on April 24.
See Innocence.  

Read More 7,786 reads
NEW RESOURCE: Criminology Journal Examines Race and Policing The most recent volume of Criminology & Public Policy examines the topic of race and policing. Contributors to this special volume offer timely insights in this controversial area, with most agreeing that more can be done to address the long-standing tension between street officers and communities of color.

The articles featured in the journal are "The Importance of Research on Race and Policing: Making Race Salient to Individuals and Institutions Within Criminal Justice" by David A. Harris, "Investigating Racial Profiling by the Miami-Dade Police Department: A Multimedia Approach" by Geoffrey P. Alpert, Roger G. Dunham, and Michael R. Smith, "'Police Don't Like Black People': African-American Young Men's Accumulated Police Experiences" by Rod K. Brunson, and "The Race/Ethnicity Disparity in Misdemeanor Marijuana Arrests in New York City" by Andrew Golub, Bruce D. Johnson, and Eloise Dunlap. The reaction essays include "Incorporating Latinos and Immigrants into Policing Research" by Ramiro Martinez, Jr., "Racial Profiling - Then and Now" by Jermone Skolnick, "Forever the Sympolic Assailant: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same" by Delores Jones-Brown, "Either They Don't Know or They Don't Care: Black Males and Negative Police Experiences" by Eric A. Stewart, and "Reefer Madness: Broken Windows Policing and Misdemeanor Marijuana Arrests in New York City, 1989-2000" by Bernard E. Harcourt and Jens Ludwig. The journal also includes an introduction by Katherine Russell-Brown of the University of Florida.

6 Criminology & Public Policy 1 (February 2007). See Race and Resources.

Read More 4,073 reads
DOCUMENTARIES: "Race to Execution"

The documentary film Race To Execution by Rachel Lyon will air nationally on the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Independent Lens on Tuesday, March 27, 2007 at 10 p.m. Race to Execution offers a compelling and original investigation of America's death penalty, probing how race discrimination infects the capital punishment system. The film reveals the potential biases in the racial portrayal of victims and perpetrators in the media, particularly where potential jurors internalize these stereotypes and bring them into the courtroom.

Race to Execution enlarges the conversation of capital punishment by focusing attention on race of jury as well as race of victim. Filmed on the heels of key 2005 Supreme Court decisions overturning death sentences in Texas and California due to racial discrimination in jury selection, the movie provides a timely analysis of the subtle, yet persistent ways our culture casually overlooks matters of race in criminal justice.

The documentary also traces the fates of two Death Row inmates - Robert Tarver in Russell County, Alabama, and Madison Hobley in Chicago, Illinois. Their compelling personal stories are enriched through accounts offered by the attorneys who defended them, and by prosecutors, criminal justice scholars, and experts in the fields of law and the media who followed their cases. The film includes major segments on the impact of media, along with how race bias in jury selection influences who lives and who dies at the hands of the state. (PBS, Independent Lens, March 8, 2007).
Find out more about the film. See also, Race.

Read More 9,312 reads
BOOKS - Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South In her book, "Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South," University of Memphis professor Margaret Vandiver explores the complex relationship between these two forms of punishment and challenges the assumption that executions consistently grew out of - and replaced - lynchings. Vandiver's book examines lynchings and legal executions in three culturally and geographically distinct southern regions. First she researched rural northwest Tennessee, where lynchings outnumbered executions by 11 to one and many African Americans were lynched for racial caste offenses rather than for actual crimes. Then she examined Shelby County, Tennessee, including the city of Memphis, where more men were legally executed than lynched. Last, she researched Marion County, Florida, where she discovered a firmly entrenched tradition of lynching for sexual assault that ended in the 1930s with three legal death sentences in quick succession. Based on her findings, Vandiver writes about the ways that legal and extralegal processes imitated, influenced, and differed from each other in these regions. Then, using a series of case studies, she identifies parallels between the mock trials that were held by lynch mobs and the legal trials that were rushed through the courts and followed by quick executions. Although the emphasis is on the historical use of these practices, the author argues that modern death sentences, like lynchings of the past, continue to be influenced by factors of race and place, and that death sentencing is comparably erratic. (Rutgers University Press, 2006). See Books.

Read More 3,818 reads
Articles - Arbitariness and Race



Read More 21,583 reads
Editorials - Race

Editorials from Around the Country Express Concerns About Texas Death Penalty 

Newspaper editorials from papers in Texas and other areas of the country praised the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Thomas Miller-El and criticized the way in which the death penalty has been implemented in Texas. Miller-El was granted a new trial in light of strong evidence of racial bias during jury selection at his original trial. Editorial excerpts follow:

New York Times

[Miller-El] is an important ruling that reiterates to all courts the importance of keeping discrimination out of jury selection.


In the landmark 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court set out guidelines for how courts should examine jury selection for evidence of discrimination. In yesterday's case [Miller-El v. Dretke], the court did just that, and found that race had repeatedly played an inappropriate role. The court found clear disparities in everything from how prospective jurors of different races were questioned to what factors the prosecution considered valid reasons for striking them. The court repeatedly rejected the prosecutors' race-neutral explanations for their actions.


 It is disturbing that before the Supreme Court heard Mr. Miller-El's claim, it was denied by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which covers Texas. The misconduct in this case was clear enough that the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 to reverse, with the centrist conservatives Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy joining the majority. It is a sign of how far the lower federal courts have drifted to the right that the Supreme Court had to correct this racially discriminatory prosecution.

(New York Times, June 14, 2005).

Washington Post

The Supreme Court reined in racial manipulation in jury selection yesterday, throwing out the capital conviction of a Texas man named Thomas Joe Miller-El.


Mr. Miller-El's case confronted the court with the question of how blatantly jury selection may be guided by race before it runs afoul of the Constitution. Prosecutors in Dallas, where Mr. Miller-El was prosecuted for a vicious murder, had a history of trying to keep blacks from jury service. A training manual in the 1960s instructed them not to "take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated." Such policies were no longer written down when Mr. Miller-El went on trial in 1986, but they lived on. ... The machinations in Mr. Miller-El's case, as the high court has now found, were obvious. Prosecutors, Justice David H. Souter writes, questioned black potential jurors differently from whites and shuffled the roster to push blacks further back in the line of eligibility. Of 11 who were nonetheless deemed qualified, prosecutors then struck 10 using peremptory challenges.


[T]his ruling sends a strong message to prosecutors and lower courts alike that such manipulations are not tolerable.

(Washington Post, June 14, 2005).

Dallas Morning News

The record shows that Mr. Miller-El, who is black, got a raw deal at trial. Prosecutors used various tricks to effectively eliminate 91 percent of blacks in his jury pool.

District Attorney Bill Hill's office can't be surprised at the ruling, considering that the court had telegraphed this punch. In an earlier round on this case, the court branded the district attorney's office of 20 years ago as "suffused with bias."


[P]rotecting one man's right to trial by a jury of peers protects us all.


Their long wait for justice in the case is a result of prosecutorial shenanigans that were only shrewd in the short term. A solid justice system is built on a far broader foundation.

(Dallas Morning News, June 14, 2005).
Houston Chronicle

In the manner of a long-suffering parent faced with a disingenuously obstreperous child, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday told the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — one more time — how wrong it was in interpreting yet another major principle in capital-punishment cases.

Racial discrimination in jury selection, no matter how Texas prosecutors tried to hide the ugly practice, is unconstitutional, the court ruled, reversing an almost 20-year-old murder conviction from Dallas County.


"It blinks reality" to find that prospective black jurors were struck by prosecutors for any reason other than their race, the court said. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' finding otherwise was "wrong to a clear and convincing degree." The state court's "conclusion was unreasonable as well as erroneous."


Texas' full-throated resort to the death penalty demands that all procedures pertaining to this maximum punishment be applied with the utmost, unquestioned prosecutorial integrity and that those operations are reviewed by courts that can acknowledge what may be going on.

(Houston Chronicle, June 14, 2005).

The Washington Post Urges Maryland to Continue Moratorium

In an editorial responding to Maryland's death penalty study that revealed racial and geographic bias in how the state applies capital punishment, the Washington Post urged Governor-elect Robert Ehrlich to reconsider plans to abandon the state's moratorium on executions:

Maryland Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promised to lift his state's moratorium on executions regardless of what scholars at the University of Maryland found concerning the influence of race and geography on the imposition of the death penalty. He should have waited, and maybe now he will reconsider. For the report, requested by Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- who froze executions while the study was underway -- makes clear that capital punishment is applied in a fashion that sends a deeply corrosive message: Maryland cares more -- a great deal more -- about the deaths of white people, particularly when killed by black people, than it does about the deaths of blacks. If Mr. Ehrlich carries out his promise, he will be saying, in effect, that this doesn't bother him.

Mr. Ehrlich has said that the study won't affect his decision, because he means to review death sentences rigorously on a case-by-case basis. But that misses the point. These data demonstrate that a given case can be rock solid and still be no more worthy of death than one in which capital punishment was never even sought. It is possible, in other words, for the state to be both rigorous and discriminatory. Is this really the Maryland that Mr. Ehrlich wants?

(Washington Post, January 8, 2003)

From The Indiana Journal Gazette

And to our everlasting shame, the punishment falls disproportionately upon poor, black defendants than on whites. Society isn't protected. Ask yourself. Do you feel safer with Gary Burris dead? Executed two years ago by lethal injection, Burris was the most recent of six men put to death in Indiana since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1977. But if the state hadn't killed Burris, it would have kept him in prison the rest of his life. Indiana now permits courts to sentence the most violent criminals to life in prison - wihtout the possibility of parole....For most lawmakers, it would take a lot of courage to admit the futility and inherently cruel nature of executions and reverse themselves. Surely Sen. Mills isn't the only one in the legislature with that kind of courage.

(Indiana Journal Gazette, 2/3/99)

Read More 4,262 reads