Citizens participate directly in American democracy in two primary ways: when they vote and when they serve on a jury. North Carolina has a long tradition of withholding both of these rights from African-Americans.
It’s a tradition that, shamefully, continues in some respects today. Unfortunately, our state’s highest courts have on occasion shown themselves unwilling to stand up to even blatant discrimination.
In 2015, the N.C. Supreme Court looked at overwhelming evidence that the state legislature drew congressional districts that intentionally diminished the impact of black votes – and decided to turn a blind eye. The North Carolina court ruled that the districts were legal, only to be resoundingly overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court last month. The nation’s highest court found that lawmakers unconstitutionally segregated black voters into two districts.
Now, the N.C. Supreme Court faces another test, this time on the issue of jury service. Briefs were filed this week asking the court to allow hearings in the cases of four death row inmates who have evidence that qualified black jurors were systematically excluded from serving on their juries. If the inmates can prove race played a role in their sentences, they could be re-sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
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The issue on the table is this: Will the court permit death sentences that are tainted by racial bias to stand unchallenged? Or will the justices allow the evidence to be heard and make a final decision about whether race still plays a role in our capital punishment system?
This time, I hope the North Carolina justices will be willing to recognize and remedy discrimination that deprives African-Americans of their most basic democratic rights. To do otherwise would deny the basic dignity and equal humanity of African-Americans.
The evidence these four defendants have presented is stark and undeniable:
Proof that district attorneys attended training sessions that taught them how to get away with illegally excluding qualified black jurors.
Handwritten notes describing black jurors with terms like “thug” and “blk wino.”
A comprehensive peer-reviewed study showing that, over two decades, the odds of a qualified black juror being struck by prosecutors was more than twice that of a white juror.
In this week’s filings, the defendants have also unearthed new evidence, which shows that race was even a factor in prosecutor discussions regarding suitable judges to hear the case. Emails between N.C. prosecutors reveal that, before the Racial Justice Act hearings in 2012, they discussed strategies to avoid having a black judge hear the cases.
Much of this evidence has been out in the open for years, and the state has never been able to counter it. In the more than eight years since the first Racial Justice Act claims were filed, the state has not produced any of its own statistics to challenge the finding of broad systematic discrimination against black jurors.
Yet, in recent years, the courts have ignored the evidence and seized on legal technicalities to keep the defendants on death row.
The question before the N.C. Supreme Court now is a fundamental one: Will we finally live up to our credo, “all men are created equal,” and make sure that African-Americans have the right to fully participate in our democracy? Or will we turn a blind eye to another case of obvious discrimination, and force the U.S. Supreme Court to step in once again?
James E. Williams Jr. recently retired after serving as the public defender for Orange and Chatham counties since 1990. He is the founder of the N.C. Public Defenders’ Committee on Racial Equity and serves on the board of the N.C. Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System.