Mockery of justice: Jury deciding fate of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers highlights a nation’s failure to prevent racist jury strikes

In this May 2020 photo, crowds gathered on the lawn of the Glynn County Courthouse as a grand jury considered murder indictments in the Ahmaud Arbery murder case. Photo: Georgia Recorder.

The law promises a “race-neutral” process for choosing juries. Yet, last week, the nation watched as a jury of eleven whites and just one Black person was seated to hear the case of the three white men accused of hunting down and killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging through a residential neighborhood.

This skewed jury came from a pool that was one quarter Black. But, one by one, almost every person of color was struck. How does this happen?

This week’s excellent story in The Intercept, about North Carolina’s ongoing scourge of racism in jury selection, provides an answer. Black citizens who report for jury duty, particularly in high profile cases, are subjected to a barrage of questions, as prosecutors hunt for any seemingly “race-neutral” reason to strike them.

They once had a negative encounter with police? Strike. They’ve had a family member in prison? Strike. They believe the criminal punishment system is racially discriminatory? Strike.

A rational person might think that having first-hand experience with the ways that racism infects courts and policing would make someone a fairer, more careful juror. These kinds of perspectives could bring needed balance to juries. But the law considers these legitimate, “race-neutral” reasons to exclude people. And (surprise!) almost all the people excluded for their negative law enforcement experiences are Black.

But not every Black juror offers such a simple reason. So prosecutors (and occasionally, as in the Arbery case, defense attorneys) dig deeper for “race-neutral” reasons to strike Black jurors. The reasons often defy logic or carry echoes of racist stereotypes.

The juror rented rather than owned a home, and therefore had a lesser stake in the community. The juror wasn’t registered to vote. The juror wasn’t well dressed. The juror was too young and attractive. The juror attended a historically Black college. The juror was “monosyllabic” when answering yes or no questions. The juror didn’t make eye contact with the prosecutor or had an “air of defiance.”

North Carolina courts have accepted these reasons for strikes of Black jurors as “race neutral,” including in death penalty cases. In one capital case, a prosecutor admitted that he struck two jurors because they were “both Black females.” (It’s also illegal to strike a juror because of gender.) However, the North Carolina courts allowed the strikes because the prosecutor offered a second reason that was not explicitly racist.

The enforcement of the Supreme Court’s decision in Batson v. Kentucky, barring race discrimination in jury selection has become a charade. This is especially true in North Carolina where prosecutors have shared tips on how to strike Black jurors and get away with it. North Carolina is also the only state in the South where the courts have never once overturned a conviction because of discrimination against a juror of color.

The N.C. Supreme Court is currently considering a handful of cases that could finally change this deplorable record, including the case where the two Black women were struck. These cases provide some small measure of hope, but for the most part, they are too little, too late. In each case, the court is considering whether a jury strike is racist years or decades after it happened. Even if the court finds in their favor, the defendants will have spent huge swaths of their lives in prison, and people of color will have been denied their right to participate as citizens in a democracy.

This large-scale failure to ensure diverse juries is one of the major reasons why North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act. The legislature repealed the law in 2013, but we are still fighting for the right of every person on death row to have their case freshly examined for racism.

Jury discrimination of all kinds must stop, but it’s especially pernicious in cases where a jury decides life and death. No defendant, Black or white, should be put to death by a jury where the voices of people of color were excluded.  To achieve true justice, juries need the perspectives of all citizens.

Kristin Collins is the Associate Director of Public Information at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. This post appeared originally on the website of the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Wake County sought the death penalty for a man with severe mental illness; only a pandemic stopped it

A bipartisan group of North Carolina legislators introduced a bill this week to prohibit the death penalty for people with severe mental illness.

Wake County prosecutors knew that Kendrick Gregory had severe mental illness when they decided to try him capitally. In the eight months before the crime, he’d been hospitalized at least 20 times for mental illness. He checked himself into emergency rooms over and over, reporting symptoms of psychosis. On some occasions, he said he heard voices telling him to hurt himself.

In the five years that they sought to try him for the death penalty, his mental illness became only more apparent. In jail, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and twice found incompetent to stand trial. He was often unkempt and was unable to help his attorneys prepare his defense.

Instead of accepting that Mr. Gregory was simply too mentally ill to be tried capitally, Wake County prosecutors asked the judge to forcibly medicate him — an attempt to “restore” him to competency so they could ask a jury to kill him.

This kind of case is exactly the reason that Ohio recently made history by becoming the first state to ban the death penalty for people with severe mental illness, a law that will protect vulnerable people and save millions a year on costly capital trials. The Constitution says the death penalty is to be reserved for the most culpable defendants and the most calculated murders, but too often it’s used instead against vulnerable and marginalized people like Mr. Gregory, who are poor, Black, and suffering from diminished mental capacity.

It is both immoral and unconstitutional to execute people who cannot understand or regulate their actions. For exactly those reasons, federal and state laws bar the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities and children. There is no rational reason for executing people who committed crimes while in the grips of psychosis or whose mental illness prevents them from understanding the consequences of their actions.

Yet, in North Carolina, this remains an accepted practice. Guy LeGrande, who has been on death row since 1996, was allowed to represent himself at his murder trial while so delusional that he believed he was God and that Oprah and other celebrities were sending him messages through the television. His illness was on full display as he told the jury “you will worship me and proclaim me lord and master.” They promptly sentenced him to death, and he remains on death row today.

If not for a global pandemic, Mr. Gregory might have joined Mr. LeGrande on death row. Read more

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, let’s deem the death penalty non-essential work

The execution viewing area at Central Prison in Raleigh, Photo by Scott Langley, deathpenaltyphoto.org

In the middle of a coronavirus pandemic, society is forced to decide which work is essential. Across the United States, that question is now being applied to countless enterprises — including the death penalty. Is it essential for states to kill people?

Eighteen executions are scheduled between now and the end of the year in Texas, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. Countless death penalty trials are also planned across the country, including in North Carolina.

The courts are likely to call off most or all of them because, right now, if our society wants to kill, we must risk harming innocent people too. That has always been true, but the coronavirus allows us to see and feel that risk more concretely.

Texas has already called off two executions. In mid-March, John Hummel and Tracy Beatty had their executions delayed indefinitely. At the time, visitors had already been barred from the state’s prisons and the nation was at the beginning of massive community spread. In those conditions, the idea of bringing together a group of people in a confined space to carry out a lethal injection was rightly deemed absurd

What’s unbelievable is that, in both cases, prosecutors opposed the delay of the executions. One told the court there was “no evidence” that coronavirus would affect the state’s ability to carry out an execution, a statement that reveals just how deeply irrational the death penalty is.

Had the executions been carried out, prison staff and witnesses would have been forced to pack themselves together in tiny rooms. The families of the people being executed might have been denied a final visit, or been forced to choose between saying goodbye to their loved ones or possibly contracting a deadly virus. All to kill a person who no longer presents any threat to society.

In any situation, some people will cling to their old ideas. But in this exceptional time when the death penalty has come to a shuddering halt, it’s possible that many people will gain a new perspective.

Maybe when we emerge from this time in our cocoons, society will be transformed. Maybe we will understand that the law of nature is far more powerful than the law of people, and that the safety the death penalty promises is an illusion. Maybe we will finally see that humans don’t need to do the work of killing.

This post appeared originally on the website of the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

After hate-filled murders, choosing a legacy of love and light over the darkness

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Those words were first spoken by Martin Luther King Jr., and many have repeated them. But it takes integrity to live by them, especially when hate has touched you in the most profound way.

Yet, that’s exactly what the families of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha have done again and again since February 2015, when these three promising Muslim students were senselessly murdered by an angry white neighbor. The crime not only ripped a hole in their families and deprived the world of three wonderful people, it terrorized the entire Muslim community. To make it worse, since the murders, their loved ones have been targeted with hateful slurs.

Their response has been to ensure that the legacy of their beautiful children will be one of love, not hate. They opened a community center for young Muslim people in a house that Barakat once owned. They started an annual interfaith food drive in the victims’ honor. Just this week, they traveled to Washington D.C. to share their story at a Congressional hearing on hate crimes.

And then Thursday, when the Durham district attorney announced that she would not seek the death penalty against their killer, the victims’ brother, Farris Barakat, stood before a crowd of reporters and expressed the family’s support for the decision. He cited those words from Dr. King and acknowledged that nothing that happens in a courtroom can ever bring true “closure” for their loss.

The myth of the death penalty is that it has a magical power to bring closure to grieving families. But the truth is that it only stokes more hate and anger. It only creates more grieving families. It only brings more darkness into our world.

D.A. Satana Deberry explained that removing the death penalty from the picture would allow the trial – already overdue – to proceed without delay. Deberry made the right decision in this difficult case, one that should be an example for other prosecutors dealing with painful crimes. The death penalty delays and extends trials and appeals, making them more painful for all involved. And, for all that, only a tiny fraction of cases ever result in execution.

Deberry also said that bringing the case to trial quickly will allow the family to begin to heal. It’s clear they’ve already begun that difficult work. Their actions this week were yet another step toward ensuring that the memories of their loved ones will be beacons of love and hope, rather than catalysts for hatred and death.

Kristin Collins is the Associate Director of Public Information at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. This post appeared originally on the blog of the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Another state ends the death penalty and it’s past time for NC to follow suit

Last week, Washington became the 20th state to end the death penalty after its Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment is arbitrary and racially biased. If those are reasons to outlaw the death penalty, then it is surely time for the North Carolina death penalty to go.

How much more proof can you ask for that the death penalty is racist and arbitrary in our state?

More than 63 percent of North Carolina’s death 141 row prisoners are people of color, even though they make up less than 30 percent of the state population. More than two dozen of the people on death row were sentenced to die by all-white juries.

A comprehensive statistical study found that defendants who kill white victims are more likely to get the death penalty, and that across the state, African American citizens are systematically, and illegally, excluded from capital juries.

If that’s not enough, let’s talk about arbitrariness.

A new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation shows that most of the people on N.C. death row are only there because they had the bad luck to be tried under outdated laws, before there were basic legal protections to ensure fairness at their trials. Had they been tried under modern laws, most wouldn’t be on death row today.

Watch the story of Nathan Bowie, who because there was no indigent defense agency at the time of his trial, ended up with an alcoholic lawyer who came to court drunk.

Today, after the enactment of many reforms, only a handful of people each year face capital trials. Yet, the selection of that handful remains arbitrary. It has more to do with the practices of the local DA, the county where the crime occurred, and the defendant’s willingness to accept a plea bargain than it does with the severity of the crime.

Across the country, people have become unwilling to ignore the obviousness unfairness that infects the death penalty. Last week, Washington admitted the truth about its death penalty. It’s time for North Carolina to do the same.

Kristin Collins is the Associate Director of Public Information at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. This post appeared originally on the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty blog.