Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck Discusses Race Bias in the Courts
In a new article written for
, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck discusses race bias in the criminal justice system, focusing on a case before North Carolina’s high court.
Thirty years after Glenn Ford, who is African-American, was convicted by an all-white Louisiana jury, he was exonerated and released from prison in March. He spent 30 years on death row for a murder he did not commit. Now, a month later, the North Carolina Supreme Court is considering the fate of four people of color who have already shown that racial discrimination played a factor in their having received death sentences. Originally, they had all been sentenced to death, but with the passage of the Racial Justice Act in 2009, a lower court ruled that the discrimination in jury selection was a significant factor in their sentences. The prosecution is seeking to restore the death sentences after the state legislature eliminated the Racial Justice Act in 2013.
Newly discovered evidence shows the discrimination in jury selection for the defendant’s cases, and research conducted across the state found that rampant racial discrimination against African-American jurors by the prosecution was the norm. Scheck notes that this problem is not limited to Louisiana and North Carolina, though. According to data collected from across the country, all white juries or juries with only one or two people of color, deliberate less than diverse juries drawn from a range of backgrounds. Scheck writes:
The all-white or nearly all-white juries are more likely to rush to judgment and are more likely to get it wrong. We know there is a strong link between all-white juries and conviction of the innocent. And we know that diverse juries are more likely to challenge one another, and less likely to fall back on what may be unconscious stereotypes. Mistaken eyewitness identification, a major contributor to wrongful convictions, is more likely to be accepted by non-diverse juries.
North Carolina was the first state to enact legislation banning racial discrimination in jury selection in capital cases. But, despite the evidence of discrimination against the four defendants, that law, the Racial Justice Act, was repealed.
Now in North Carolina, it is up to the state’s Supreme Court to acknowledge the evidence of discrimination in the cases that had the benefit of the Racial Justice Act. The superior court judge who had re-sentenced the prisoners to life without parole was overwhelmed by the evidence of pervasive and persistent bias. He wrote, “The Court takes hope that the acknowledgement of this ugly truth of race discrimination … is the first step in creating a system of justice that is free from the pernicious influence of race, a system that truly lives up to our ideal of equal justice under the law.” That judgment must stand.
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