Blacks Systematically Excluded From Death Penalty Juries
7:00AM ET October 27th, 2011
Contributor: Todd Williams
A Rocky Williform Company
In the wake of the controversial execution of Troy Davis in the state of Georgia, the racial disparities in death penalty cases have become increasingly scrutinized. The disproportionate amount of African American defendants being sentenced to capital punishment has been discussed and analyzed; but ongoing disparities in jury selection for African Americans in capital punishment cases have seemingly gone unnoticed.
But in Henry County, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative filed a civil rights lawsuit asserting that District Attorney Douglas Valeska has illegally excluded Blacks from serving on juries in serious felony cases--particularly death penalty cases.
Five African Americans state that courts previously excluded them from jury service because they are black and lawyers believe that the class action suit is the first of its kind to be filed against a prosecutor's racially discriminatory use of peremptory strikes.
"Mr. Veleska has been the D.A. for 21 years and is very powerful and influential in the community," explains Bryan Stevenson, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "He's been fairly unapologetic about his policies and his practices. But he has, in seven cases, been found to have illegally excluded individuals from serving on juries on the basis of race."
"He really represents the resistance to diversity and protecting of the civil rights of all people," Stevenson added. "He has not been responding to the courts or to the press."
The complaint filed alleges that from 2006 to 2010, state prosecutors in Dothan, Alabama used peremptory strikes to exclude 82% of qualified black jurors from death-penalty cases. Because of this, every death-penalty jury in Houston County over this period has been all white or only inclusive of a single black juror. The circuit is nearly 25% African American, and Houston County has the highest per capita death sentencing rate in Alabama.
"There have really been no consequences," Stevenson says. "The defendant gets a new trial, but [officials] don't get sanctioned, they don't get disbarred. We've created an environment where people can engage in this kind of discrimination with impunity. If [Valeska] were a newscaster or a commentator, he would lose his job. But somehow , there have been no consequences for him or any of the other prosecutors that have been found to illegally exclude on the basis of race."
The complaint also alleges that Valeska's policies violate the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which provides criminal penalties for officials who exclude any qualified citizen from jury service on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Department of Justice has not enforced this anti-discrimination law since its passage more than 135 years ago.
"African Americans are being excluded--regardless of the race of the defendant," Stevenson explains. "Its one of the peculiar aspects of this; [perhaps] there's a presumption that black people are not qualified or capable to participate in these trials. But [I think] prosecutors want jurors [who will] presume the guilt of the accused [and] who will believe everything the prosecutor says. All of the prosecutors are white. All of the judges are white. And they [prefer] having whites in the jury box."