Race

North Carolina Supreme Court to Hear Racial Justice Act Cases

On April 14, the North Carolina Supreme Court will hear appeals in the cases of the four inmates whose death sentences were reduced to life without parole under the state's Racial Justice Act. North Carolina passed the Act in 2009, allowing death row inmates to use statistical studies to show that racial bias affected their trials. The first four cases were heard in 2012. The evidence presented at hearings for defendants Marcus Robinson (l.), Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters included testimony that prosecutors made racially charged notes during jury selection and participated in a training seminar where they were taught how to get around laws that banned striking jurors on the basis of race. Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks reduced the sentences of all four inmates to life. In one ruling, Weeks said he found “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” The Racial Justice Act was repealed in 2013, but claims made prior to repeal are still pending. The state brought the current appeal before the state Supreme Court in an attempt to have the death sentences of all four inmates reinstated.

Ohio Commission to Release Recommendations for Death Penalty Reform

In 2011, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court appointed a blue-ribbon Commission to review the state's death penalty and to make recommendations for reform. On April 10, the Commission prepared to announce 56 recommendations for changing the death penalty, including:

► Require higher standards for proving guilt if a death sentence is sought (such as DNA evidence)
► Bar the death penalty for those who suffer from “serious mental illness”
► Lessen the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty
► Create a Death Penalty Charging Committee at the Attorney General’s Office to approve capital prosecutions
► Adopt a Racial Justice Act to facilitate inequality claims in Ohio courts.

See all 56 proposed recommendations from the Task Force.

Perspectives on Representing Death Row Inmates

Ken Rose has represented people condemned to death in the south for 30 years and recently described his experience with this "flawed system:" "The system reflects our biases and blind spots," he said. "Just like us, it is susceptible to error and prejudice and, sometimes, an indiscriminate desire for revenge. Like our country, it favors the privileged and takes the heaviest toll on the poor and mentally ill." As an example, Rose told the story of one of his clients, Leo Edwards, whose gas-chamber execution he witnessed in Mississippi in 1989. Edwards, who was black, was prosecuted by a district attorney who said he tried to "get rid of as many" black jurors as possible, and testified that he used that tactic in Edwards' trial, resulting in an all-white jury. The timing of Edwards' case prevented him from receiving a new trial: "This clear racial bias was never addressed because Leo’s case was too far along by 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court set new standards for reviewing claims of race discrimination in jury selection," he said. Rose noted that some improvements have been made, but "Racial bias still taints trials. Defendants are still chosen for death arbitrarily. Those sentenced to die are still overwhelmingly poor and mentally ill. Judges and lawyers, including myself, still make mistakes. Innocent people are still imprisoned."  Read the op-ed below.

Pew Poll Finds Opposition to Death Penalty Among Racial and Ethnic Minorities


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Further analysis of a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that support for the death penalty was significantly lower among some racial and ethnic minorities than for the general population. More Hispanics oppose the death penalty (50%) than support it (40%), and the same is true of African Americans, with only about a third (36%) favoring capital punishment and a majority (55%) opposing it. Democrats are about evenly split, with 45% in favor and 47% opposed, while 71% of Republicans support it. Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics were among those most in opposition to capital punishment (58% and 54% opposed, respectively). Support was lower among younger Americans; for those in the age group 18-29, only 51% supported the death penalty. Overall, 55% of Americans in the poll supported the death penalty, the lowest level since Pew began polling on this question in 1996. Pew said greater public awareness of wrongful convictions and lower crime rates may be partly responsible for the declining support of capital punishment. 

Efforts Underway to Exonerate 14-Year-Old Executed in South Carolina in 1944

Attorneys representing the family of George Stinney, Jr., recently filed a request for a posthumous exoneration of Mr. Stinney, the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. Stinney, an African-American 14-year-old, was executed in 1944 for the murder of two young white girls less than three months after a trial that was filled with errors. Although Clarendon County, South Carolina, where the trial took place, had a population that was 72% black, only whites served on Stinney's jury. Stinney's lawyer offered virtually no defense. His relatives, who could have offered an alibi, were not called to testify. Stinney allegedly made a confession, but the contents of his statement have never been revealed. His attorney did not file an appeal, so no court ever reviewed his trial. In a supportive brief in the effort to clear Stinney, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project of Northeastern University School of Law stated, "The prosecution of George Stinney constituted a grave miscarriage of justice, causing great suffering for his family...Stinney’s shocking treatment was inconsistent with the most fundamental notions of due process, including but certainly not limited to the right to effective assistance of counsel."

NEW RESOURCES: Latest "Death Row, USA" Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA shows the total death row population continuing to decline in size. The U.S. death-row population decreased from 3,108 on April 1, 2013, to 3,095 on July 1, 2013. The new total represented a 12% decrease from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,517. The states with the largest death rows were California (733), Florida (412), Texas (292), Pennsylvania (197), and Alabama (197). In the past 10 years, the size of Texas's death row has shrunk 36%; Pennsylvania's death row has declined 18%; on the other hand, California's death row has increased 17% in that time. The report also contains racial breakdowns on death row. The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (71%), among those states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races.

NEW VOICES: Former Georgia Warden Discusses Effects of Performing Executions

Dr. Allen Ault, the former warden for Georgia's executions, recently spoke about the lingering psychological effects of carrying out the death penalty. Ault, who retired in 1995, said, "I still have nightmares. [Execution is] the most premeditated form of murder you can possibly imagine and it stays in your psyche forever." He said he felt guilt after the electrocution of a mentally disabled juvenile offender, who developed a deep sense of contrition during his 17 years on death row and whose last words to Ault were "please forgive me." "No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a life-long sentence of nagging doubt, shame and guilt," Ault said. He also said the death penalty was plagued with racial disparities.

STUDIES: Jurors in Washington State More Likely to Impose Death on Black Defendants

According to a recent study by Professor Katherine Beckett of the University of Washington, jurors in Washington are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. The disparity in sentencing occurred despite the fact that prosecutors were slightly more likely to seek the death penalty against white defendants. Nicholas Brown, general counsel to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, said, "It's positive to see that prosecutors aren't unfairly considering race in making decisions about when to seek capital punishment. At the same time, it brings up a lot of unfortunate implications about juries." The study examined 285 cases in which defendants were convicted of aggravated murder. The cases were analyzed for factors that might influence sentencing, including the number of victims, the prior criminal record of the defendant, and the number of aggravating factors alleged by the prosecutor. Gov. Inslee recently placed a moratorium on executions, citing the unequal application of the death penalty as one of his reasons for halting executions.

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