NAACP, scholars support inmates' racial bias claims

Brief seeks life sentences, not death

Staff WriterAugust 26, 2010 

University scholars and the state NAACP have joined death row inmates' legal battle to have their sentences converted to life in prison on the basis of claims of racial bias.

In briefs filed Wednesday with the state Supreme Court and mailed to several Superior Courts, the scholars and NAACP representatives hope to add heft and breadth to the bias claims of some of the first five death row inmates to seek relief from their sentences under the year-old Racial Justice Act. They also hope to bring wider attention to the cases. "Because of the NAACP's history and because of its relationships, the brief will certainly draw both public attention and, I think, it will capture the attention of judges," said Jim Coleman, a Duke University law professor who helped draft the brief filed by the state NAACP.

Though none of the bias claims has gone before a judge, and prosecutorshaven't officially weighed in on the matter, many dispute that racial bias exists in the modern justice system. They say the race of a defendant or victim does not play into their decisions to seek capital punishment. Many contend that a potential juror's race is not something they consider in striking someone from a jury.

NAACP representatives and the scholars say in their "friend of the court" briefs, though, that racial bias might not be intentional, but can be subconscious or implied.

They elaborated on their contentions in briefs filed on behalf of four inmates:

Guy Tobias LeGrande, a mentally ill black man who was on trial for his life in Stanly County when a prosecutor wearing a noose-shaped lapel pin urged jurors to string together evidence and "grab the 'rope,'" according to the inmate's bias claim.

Jathiyah Al-Bayyinah, a black man who was convicted twice by two all-white juries in Davie County, in 1999 and again in 2003, for the 1998 fatal stabbing of Simon Wilford Brown, Jr. Brown was a white 71-year-old man who owned a wholesale grocery supply business in Mocksville.

Jeremy Dushane Murrell, a black defendant, was convicted in 2006 in Forsyth County of the 2003 kidnapping, robbery and murder of Lawrence Matthew Harding, a teenage, white cook in Winston-Salem. Only one member of the jury that decided the case was black.

Darrell Eugene Strickland, sentenced to death in Union County in October 1995 for the first-degree murder of Henry Brown, 33, an acquaintance from Monroe.

Who is on the juries?

Recent studies found that qualified blacks have been excluded from capital trial juries at disproportionate rates, and that more than 40 percent of North Carolina's 159 death row inmates were tried by juries that were all-white or had one black member.

In the brief filed Wednesday, a dozen scholars from across the country said that a crucial task in the jury system is "to have 12 members from different walks of life examine the evidence during trial, evaluate it, and then in deliberation bring together all of the perspectives of the members in order to reach a verdict."

If qualified black jurors are not being included in the process, the scholars said, cultural innuendo can be overlooked or misunderstood.

"African-Americans have unique social and cultural life experiences that can provide insight into the evidence: for example, the social and physical context in which a killing occurred, the reliability of witnesses, the potential motives of the accused, the background of the accused, and other factors, including the weight that should be given to each piece of evidence," the scholars said in their brief.

Neil Vidmar, a Duke University professor who teaches in the schools of law and psychology, was among the scholars weighing in on the inmates' behalf. Though some of the issues raised by the scholars' brief seem like common sense, they might not always be considered by judges and others in the judicial system, Vidmar said in an interview Wednesday.

"These are important kinds of issues that I think people care about," Vidmar said. "Sometimes judges kind of get focused on the law and technicalities of law. What we're trying to do is bring attention to these issues."

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4948

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