Sweeping Ruling about Racial Bias in Capital Jury Selection Shows the Need for Sweeping Reforms

Last week, North Carolina state Judge Gregory Weeks issued a sweeping ruling setting aside the death sentences of three North Carolina prisoners because of a wealth of evidence proving the prosecutors’ racial bias in jury selection. The ruling was based on evidence from the “words and the deeds of the prosecutors involved in the Defendants’ cases,” Weeks wrote. This evidence provided a unique window into how and why prosecutors use race in jury selection.

There is no reason to believe the practices of the Cumberland County district attorneys’ office were unique.  In fact, all of the statistical evidence shows otherwise. As Weeks previously found in the first case brought under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, researchers from Michigan State University College of Law conducted a rigorous, highly reliable study of jury selection and found pervasive, powerful, and unrefuted evidence of discrimination by prosecutors across the state.

When potential juror Mardelle Gore, an African-American woman, stepped into the jury box for questioning by the lawyers in Quintel Augustine’s capital case, she already had a strike against her in the view of the Cumberland County prosecution.

Gore was in many ways the kind of juror the prosecution often says it seeks in capital cases: she was a long-term resident, a regular voter, and not opposed to the death penalty. But Gore’s name was on a handwritten list the Cumberland County prosecutor had prepared titled “jury strikes”. Next to Gore’s name was a short comment in the prosecutor’s handwriting about the neighborhood Gore lived in, “Longwood-- bad area.” Longwood was one of several African-American neighborhoods the prosecution had flagged on its “jury strikes” sheet.

The sheet had a number of more inflammatory and obviously racially biased references. One prospective juror, who had no record of alcohol or drug offenses, was described as a “blk wino – drugs.” A white prospective juror was described, in contrast, as “drinks -- country boy -- ok.” The prosecution noted that another prospective African-American juror, who was from “a respectable black family” was “okay.”

The “jury strikes” document is the kind of smoking gun that is rare to find in racial-discrimination litigation. But the treatment of Gore is an example of a more subtle form of racial discrimination that social science experts tell us is widely common today. At the time of the trial, lawyers for Augustine questioned the strike of Gore because the prosecution struck every black juror they questioned. The prosecutor offered a handful of reasons. Left out were the neighborhood Gore lived in and the prosecution’s intent to exclude anyone from there. This type of redlining is an example of how racial bias continues to operate—in most cases, undetected-- in capital cases.  In the end, Augustine was tried by an all-white jury.

The explanations for striking Gore are another example of how racial bias operates in jury selection. Two of the explanations the prosecutor gave for striking Gore, her body language and her “monosyllabic” answers are a direct match to a “cheat sheet” training document created for prosecutors of prepared explanations they could give to defeat questions about the role of race in jury selection.

There can no longer be any serious question about whether race drove jury selection in capital cases. What remains to be answered is how North Carolina can, and will, respond. Make no mistake, changing the culture and practice of jury selection to remove the role of race will be no small task. It will require commitment -- from senior prosecutors as well as new hires -- to participate and take seriously trainings about how to confront and battle unconscious biases. That includes a focus on the importance of the constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination, rather than distributing materials about how to circumvent the prohibition.

These cases provided an unprecedented examination of the role of race in capital jury selection. By comparing evidence across cases, Weeks was able to peel away layers of pretext and subterfuge that have for too long concealed the role of race. This kind of close and unflinching investigation lives up to part of the promise of the Racial Justice Act. It is up to the district attorneys, though, to complete the promise and enact the kinds of reforms that will prevent the need for the law in the future.

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Vicki B.

Who cares what dag-on color they are? That's not why I EVER believed in the death penalty. I think the Son of Sam should have qualified for the death penalty although I don't know if he ever did. And I was for Ted Bundy getting it too.
That's because the only way I agree with it is if they fit the criteria my friend told us about in 2006. He was a Capital Offenses attorney and he said at least one of those extenuating circumstances had to be present before you could qualify for capital punishment. He didn't say you had to be black and do one of those things, he said the person who committed the crime no matter who they are had to have done one of those things. Like killing someone while committing another felony, like killing more than one person at once or over a period of time, like dismembering or burning or mutilating the body after killing the person. None of that said you had to be black. I thought it was saying no matter WHO does it, if they do that then they qualify for capital punishment.

I'm not for capital punishment for black people who do that. I'm for capital punishment for people who do those things the attorney mentioned, even if the perpetrator is red with green polka dots. I don't care.
But I also think the practice of watching someone be put to death is beyond disgusting, and I know someone who was murdered. I wouldn't REALLY want to watch it happen, even though in our case we damn near were FORCED to watch as our loved one died. We knew he was trapped inside and when Tower 1 finally fell to the ground we watched it happening while also knowing he was trapped inside. Either dead, dying or alive; there were over 70 people who were fully alive when Tower 1 began its descent and those people died being crushed to death under thousands of tons of bricks.
Even knowing that, I still couldn't watch the person who orchestrated the entire disgusting plan be put to death. In fact, I became disturbed that so many people were celebrating that he died.
Thinking a person should get the death penalty doesn't mean I'm going to be happy about it when it occurs nor be inclined to watch the drugs go into the needle and eventually kill the person.
I'd rather pay more to give them the death penalty - because I don't believe it's costing more and Charles Manson's 43-year and counting prison stay is the perfect proof that it won't always cost less to keep them in prison - than keep them alive in prison.
What if they escaped from prison? Then they'd be a threat to the community. And it isn't like escaping from prison is unheard of. I think they're too dangerous as they are when they enter the prison to be kept alive.
I think that of all people who fit the criteria Bob Shutt gave us, and their color makes no difference.

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