Those who work for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation are idealistic, perhaps, and certainly righteous, but they now have focused on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could have serious implications in capital cases in North Carolina. The ruling came in Washington in Foster v. Chatman, wherein the court ruled 7-1 that prosecutors in a Georgia case violated the U.S. Constitution by intentionally excluding African-Americans from the jury in a capital case. The court ruled also that Georgia courts were wrong in refusing to consider evidence of that discrimination.
The exclusions were blatant: Prosecutors struck all potential black jurors, and one’s notes showed he marked the names of potential black jurors with a “B” and also ranked the African-Americans in order of preference in case one had to be chosen.
Said Ken Rose, senior attorney at the center, “Today, the court sent a message that we must stop making excuses and start enforcing the law against discrimination in jury selection. The privilege and obligation to serve on a jury, regardless of race, is fundamental to our democracy. Yet African-Americans in North Carolina are routinely denied the right to participate in the most important decision our criminal justice system ever makes.”
The General Assembly, then controlled by a Democratic majority, in 2009 passed the Racial Justice Act to address racial bias in jury selection, among other issues. Death row inmates could present evidence in the form of statistical proof that African-Americans were systematically excluded from juries. If they proved bias, their sentences could be commuted to life without parole.
The center, in its response to the high court ruling, cited several examples of North Carolina cases in which prosecutors tried to exclude black juror candidates. And a study showed black juror candidates were removed from consideration by prosecutors at twice the rate of white jurors. In addition, the center reports, some prosecutors attended a training session from the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys that focused in part on “race neutral” excuses if they had to explain excluding black juror candidates.
This Georgia case, with the decision written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, should shame North Carolina lawmakers into restoring the Racial Justice Act..