Landmark Case Set to Expose Racial Bias In Capital Punishment

By Shani Saxon Aug 26, 2019

Attorneys assembled at the state supreme court in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Monday (August 26) to argue against pervasive racial bias in capital punishment cases. They aim to present evidence that penalty sentences disproportionately affect Black people due to “blatant and intentional racial bias that infects the system” and distorts juries, according to The Guardian

The arguments center around four people facing execution, including three African-American men and one Native-American woman. Marcus Robinson, Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin and Christina Walters were all taken removed from death row over the past seven years on the “grounds that their sentences were racially compromised,” The Guardian reports. However, the Republican-controlled state legislature put all of them back in line for death following partisan backlash. Lawyers at Monday’s hearing seek to again remove them from death row.

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Capital Punishment Project and a lead lawyer on the case, told the news outlet that this case gets to the heart of what’s wrong with the American court system. “We are taking an unprecedented look at whether the courts will tolerate proven racial bias in the death penalty,” she explained. “We’re talking about fundamental rights that go to the integrity of the courts and the entire criminal justice system.”

The attorneys argue that all the defendants in this case faced “overwhelming” racial bias in their initial trials, and were tried by predominantly White, or “bleached” juries. According to The Guardian:


Black potential jurors were systematically struck off—consciously and intentionally—at a rate far higher than their White equivalents. As a result, juries were produced that were almost exclusively, or in Augustine’s case entirely, White.

Evidence of racial bias in death penalty cases was uncovered by a commission established by North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (RJA). The commission was launched in 2009 after “a spate of exonerations of innocent people held in some cases for decades on death row,” according to The Guardian. Most of those innocent people were Black, and the move was an attempt by the then Democrat-controlled state legislature to root out the racism embedded in death penalty cases. 

Although jury bleaching is against the law, the RJA discovered that North Carolina prosecutors were deliberately trained to dodge constitutional rules set up to prevent jury selection based on race. According to The Guardian, “The court will hear that in 1995, a training scheme was set up for prosecutors statewide.”

The Guardian continues:


As part of the training, dubbed Top Gun II, attendees were given a handout titled “Batson Justifications: Articulating Juror Negatives.” The document was essentially a cheat sheet—it told prosecutors how they could skirt the clear prohibition on racial strikes by listing 10 “justifications” they could “articulate” to dismiss Black people while disguising the race motive.

Stubbs says Republicans in the state are more concerned with keeping death row populated with Black inmates than they are with maintaining the integrity of the American judicial system. “They feared that breaking the link between the death penalty and race would remove too many people from death row,” she said. “They decided they were willing to accept racial bias to keep the death penalty.”