RACE: Historic Civil Rights Suit Filed in Alabama Over Exclusion of Blacks from Jury Service

On October 19, five African Americans filed a federal civil rights lawsuit charging that Alabama has illegally excluded blacks from serving on death penalty juries in Houston and Henry Counties.  The plaintiffs in this class action suit were all previously barred from serving on juries in capital or other serious felony cases.  In each case, state courts found blacks were illegally excluded from jury service because of their race.  Bryan Stevenson, lead attorney for the plaintiffs and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, pointed particularly to the actions of District Attorney Douglas Valeska: "Mr. Valeska has repeatedly been found to have illegally excluded black people from jury service with peremptory strikes in capital cases but he continues the practice because most people don't know about it." He continued, "The underrepresentation and exclusion of people of color from juries has seriously damaged the credibility and reliability of the criminal justice system.  Individual case reversals haven't stopped this illegal practice, so there must be greater accountability."  The lawsuit alleges that, from 2006 to 2010, state prosecutors in Dothan used peremptory strikes to exclude 82% of qualified black jurors in death penalty cases.  As a result, the jury in every death penalty case in Houston County over this period has been either all white or had only a single black juror, despite the fact that the circuit is nearly 25% African American.  Houston County has the highest per capita death sentencing rate in Alabama.

NEW VOICES: In Inter-racial Killing, Victim's Family Asks District Attorney Not to Pursue Death Penalty

Family members of James Anderson (pictured), who was killed on June 26 in Jackson, Mississippi, are asking the District Attorney not to seek the death penalty for Anderson's killer.  Deryl Dedmon, a white teenager, was charged with Anderson's murder after he and other white teens took turns beating him.  Dedmon then drove over Anderson with a truck.  Barbara Anderson Young, the victim's sister, wrote a letter to the D.A. on behalf of their mother and two brothers, saying that their opposition to the death penalty is "deeply rooted in our religious faith, a faith that was central in James' life as well." The letter continued, "We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites.  Executing James' killers will not help balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment."  On September 21, Texas executed Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist who dragged an African-American man to death in Jasper 13 years ago.  Some members of the victim's family also opposed the death penalty.

NEW VOICES: Former Texas Assistant District Attorney Now Wants to Halt Execution

Linda Geffin (pictured) was one of the Texas prosecutors who won a conviction and death sentence for Duane Buck in 1997.  She is now the division chief of the Special Prosecutions Unit in the Office of the Harris County Attorney, and she is urging Gov. Rick Perry and other state officials to stop Buck's September 15 execution because improper race evidence was put before the jury considering his sentence.  In a letter to state officials, Geffin said that former Texas Attorney General John Cornyn had previously acknowledged the "improper injection of race in the sentencing hearing in Mr. Buck's case," and that "No individual should be executed without being afforded a fair trial, untainted by considerations of race."  On June 9, 2000, Cornyn called for new sentencing trials for the defendents who had been improperly sentenced to death because of the racially biased testimony.  Of those seven defendents, Buck is the only one who has not been granted a new sentencing.

Only Texas Inmate Not Resentenced After Admittedly Racially Biased Testimony Faces Execution

Texas inmate Duane Buck (pictured) is one of seven death row inmates whose death sentences were tainted by improper racial testimony presented at their trials. In 2000, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn (now Senator) confessed the state's error to the U.S. Supreme Court, noting that seven cases had been tainted by improper prosecution testimony. "It is inappropriate to allow race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system," Cornyn said. "The people of Texas want and deserve a system that affords the same fairness to everyone.”  Six inmates received new sentencing trials, but Buck did not. All seven trials involved testimony by psychologist Walter Quijano, who told juries that defendants were more likely to commit future crimes if they were black or Hispanic. The potential for future dangerousness is a key factor in juries' sentencing decisions in Texas. The prosecutor at Buck's sentencing trial asked Quijano: "The race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons; is that correct?" "Yes," Quijano said. Originally, Quijano had been called by the defense and testified that he did not believe Buck would be dangerous in the future.

STUDIES: Significant Racial Disparities Found in Military Death Penalty

A soon-to-be-published study has found significant racial disparities in the U.S. military's death penalty. The study, which will be published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, found that minorities in the military are twice as likely to be sentenced to death as whites accused of similar crimes. The study examined all 105 potential capital cases since the military death penalty was reinstated in 1984.  Of the 16 death sentences handed down in that time, 10 were of minority defendants. The authors did not attribute the disparities to intentional bias: "There is no suggestion here that any participant in the military criminal justice system consciously and knowingly discriminated on the basis of the race of the accused or the victim," the authors said. "However, there is substantial evidence that many actors in the American criminal justice system are unconsciously influenced by the race of defendants and their victims." A New York Times editorial about the study noted how rarely death sentences are handed down in the military, that there have been no military executions since 1961, and that 8 out of 10 death sentences have been overturned. Six men are currently on the U.S. military's death row. The editorial concluded, "The de facto moratorium has not made the country or the military less secure. The evidence of persistent racial bias is further evidence that it is time for the military system to abolish the death penalty."

North Carolina Court to Hear First Challenge under State's Racial Justice Act

Marcus Robinson will be the first North Carolina death row inmate to have a sentencing challenge heard in court based on the state's 2009 Racial Justice Act.  According to the act, a death row inmate who can establish through statistical studies that his sentence was racially discriminatory can seek to have it commuted to life in prison.  Robinson's lawyers plan to argue that he received a death sentence partly because he is black and his victim was white  They plan to cite several North Carolina studies, including one that found that a defendant who killed a white victim was 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if there were no white victims in the crime.  His lawyers will also cite statistics showing that prosecutors in the state reject minorities for capital juries at twice the rate they reject whites.  In Robinson's case, the prosecutors rejected half the potential jurors who were black but only 15 percent of potential jurors who were other races.  His sentencing jury was comprised of nine whites, one American Indian and two blacks, plus two white alternates. The Racial Justice Act was challenged in the state's prior legislative session, but it was upheld.

IN MEMORIAM: David Baldus

On June 13, 2011, law professor and noted researcher David Baldus died in Iowa City, IA. Professor Baldus had been a professor at the University of Iowa since 1969 and taught criminal law, anti-discrimination law, and capital punishment and federal criminal law. He was nationally recognized for his research on the death penalty. Professor Baldus conducted many studies regarding the implementation of capital punishment in the United States. One well-known study, conducted in 1983, examined the presence of racial discrimination in capital sentencing in Georgia. Baldus’s research found that the odds of defendants receiving the death penalty were 4.3 times greater if they were accused of killing white victims than if they were accused of killing black victims.  Professor Baldus received national recognition when his studies  were cited in McCleskey v. Kemp, a U.S. Supreme Court case regarding racial bias in the implementation of the death penalty. “He was one of the nation’s outstanding law professors and a great citizen of the university," said Sandy Boyd, former president of the University of Iowa. “He had a great warmth and concern for others.”

Confederate Flag Outside Louisiana Courthouse Evokes Claims of Bias

A black defendant facing execution in Louisiana for the killing of a white firefighter is challenging the fairness of his trial because a Confederate flag was flying outside the Caddo Parish courthouse in Shreveport, Louisiana, during the proceedings.  Felton Dorsey’s legal team recently argued before the Louisiana Supreme Court that the presence of the flag had an impact on jury selection and on Dorsey’s conviction. Carl Staples, a prospective black juror, was struck from the case by prosecutors after he complained about the Confederate flag. Staples told the court that the flag "is a symbol of one of the most…heinous crimes ever committed.”  He explained, "When I was screened for the jury, it welled up inside of me and I expressed my feelings."  The flag has flown in front of the courthouse since 1951.  Dorsey has maintained his innocence and also argued prosecutors used unreliable accomplice testimony and improperly removed most of the prospective black jurors from the case. He was convicted by a jury that consisted of 11 white individuals and one African American.