Anthony Haynes was only 19. An African American with no prior criminal record, he was under the influence of crystal meth and mental health problems when he killed an off-duty police officer in Houston, Texas in May 1998.
At jury selection for his trial, the judge cleaned guns while African Americans were peremptorily removed from the jury pool. What kind of message did that send?
A jury with 11 white members convicted Haynes. His defense lawyer then made little effort to stave off a death sentence – witnesses who could have testified that Anthony Haynes’ crime was totally out of character were not called. The jury heard nothing about this, or about Haynes’ mental health issues, and promptly sentenced him to die.
Since his death sentence was handed down in 1999, Anthony Haynes has been a model prisoner, disproving the jury’s conclusion that he would be a continuing threat to society (a requirement in Texas for passing a death sentence).
In a victory over racial bias in the death penalty, Marcus Robinson's death sentence was reduced to life in prison in April 2012.
North Carolina lawmakers are trying to gut the historic Racial Justice Act.
When North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act (RJA), it was a beautiful moment. A state with a long history of racism was vowing to face that legacy head on, by honestly confronting racial bias in death penalty cases. I grew up in North Carolina and, believe me, this was needed. It was also a remarkable political achievement and it made me proud to be from there.
Then the law, which allows the use of statistical evidence to prove racial bias in capital cases, was applied.
In the case of Marcus Robinson, a North Carolina judge found that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor” in jury selection at Robinson’s trial, and that statistics showed widespread racial bias in other capital cases across the state at the same time. Robinson’s death sentence was reduced to life without parole.
Marcus Robinson will not be executed but instead spend the rest of his life in prison after a judge ruled that his death sentence was tainted by racial discrimination.
Our justice system has a racial bias problem, both in the way it treats suspects, and the way it treats victims.
The cases of Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin underscore this. If the races were reversed would Troy Davis’ execution have been pursued so relentlessly, would he even have received a death sentence, would police have been so quick to ignore other potential suspects?
And, had the races been reversed, wouldn’t the reaction to Trayvon Martin’s killing have been … different?
But knowing there is racial bias and doing something about it are two different things. In North Carolina, something is being done.
Race matters. It is hard to see the events that have unfolded in Sanford, Florida, and not conclude that in this country, race still matters.
Race has become fodder in partisan political arenas, content for contentious bloggers, and sometimes, as in the case of Trayvon Martin’s shooting, race becomes a matter of life and death.
George Zimmerman’s actions on the day Travyon Martin was shot are still under investigation, but the facts of the case as reported touch on issues that have long been of concern to the Amnesty movement: a young man who is suspect not for what he did, but for how he looks; the automatic assumption that violence against a black man is probably justified; and gun laws – or more appropriately, the failure to adopt rational gun laws – that allow citizens to take fewer precautions than even the police.
As we approach the end of another year, the time for annual reports is at hand. For the death penalty, this means the yearly report from the Death Penalty Information Center, as well as the year-end report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Both reports show that in 2011 the downward trends we have been observing for several years in the United States continued or even accelerated.
Texas carried out its lowest number of executions (13) since 1996. Nationwide, the 43 executions carried out represented about half the number that were put to death in the year 2000, and U.S. death sentences dropped well below 100 for the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
One step forward, one step back. Usually, the U.S. Supreme Court has been the one to scrutinize the shenanigans of Texas capital punishment, and to step in when local courts go too far. But yesterday was opposite day. It was the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that did the right thing in staying an execution, and the U.S. Supreme Court that refused to intervene despite an obvious and disturbing injustice.
In the Supreme Court case, Buck v. Thaler, Duane Buck was sentenced to die by a jury that heard an “expert” – Dr. Walter Quijano – testify that African Americans are more inclined to commit crimes and be a danger to others. (Buck is African American and you have to be considered a “future danger” to get a death sentence in Texas.)
It was the early summer doldrums of late June. The year was 1972. The number one song was Neil Diamond’s Song Sung Blue (really??), and the movies that came out that weekend were The Candidate and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (not exactly blockbusters like The Godfather). But there was some relatively big news – bigger, at least, than the news from twelve days earlier that five men had been arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. The bigger news was that the US Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, had banned the death penalty.
It was clear at the time that the Court’s slim majority was not stable. They all had their own different reasons for voting to nullify the nation’s capital punishment laws. Two wrote that the death penalty was “cruel and unusual punishment”; another wrote that it was discriminatory; another wrote that it was arbitrary (his exact words were, “freakish and wanton”), and still another doubted that executions met any general need for retribution.
It’s almost 40 years later, and the death penalty continues to discriminate, largely on the basis of the race of the victim. It also continues to be arbitrary – the vast majority of murders do NOT result in a death sentence, and the limited success of capital prosecutions is often determined, not by the heinousness of the crime, but by where the crime is committed and whether the defendant can hire his own lawyer. The value of retribution in a punishment carried out so rarely and randomly remains doubtful. And, as more states abolish the penalty or restrict its use (only 11 states carried out executions last year), and as death sentences continue to decline, the “cruel and unusual” argument carries greater weight.
When the death penalty in the US is abolished again (and permanently), the movies may be different (then again they may not), the songs may be different (we can only hope), but the arguments will be pretty much the same.
Today, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue signed the Racial Justice Act into law, making North Carolina only the second state in the country to allow death row prisoners to meaningfully challenge their death sentences if racial bias is evident. (Kentucky is the only other state that has adopted similar provisions.)
As discussed in my previous post, race (particularly race of the victim) has been a major factor in who does and does not get death sentences in North Carolina, and 35 inmates on North Carolina’s death row were put there by all-white juries.
It is good to see a southern state like North Carolina take such a leadership role in directly confronting its legacy of racism and going the extra mile to ensure that its justice system (or at least its capital punishment system) is no longer infected with racial bias. The 33 other death penalty states, both northern and southern, should follow North Carolina and Kentucky’s lead; racial bias in the death penalty is a national problem.
On July 15th the North Carolina House voted 61-54 to approve the Racial Justice Act, which, if signed into law, would allow death row prisoners in the state to appeal their sentences if racial prejudice played a role in their sentencing. Last night, the North Carolina Senate approved the legislation, which now goes to Governor Bev Perdue for her signature.
The Racial Justice Act could be a very significant step towards ensuring that race does not affect the fate of capital defendants in North Carolina—a state with a history of racial prejudice, where race has been a factor in death penalty cases in the past. A 2001 study conducted by Dr. Isaac Unah and Prof. Jack Boger from the University of North Carolina showed that the probability of a defendant receiving the death penalty in North Carolina is 3.5 time higher if the murder victim was white. In some parts of the state the findings were even more disturbing. For instance, in Durham County, prosecutors were 5 times less likely to seek the death penalty if both the defendant and the murder victim were black than if the defendant was black but the murder victim was white.
A review by the Winston Salem Journal found similar racial discrepancies in the application of North Carolina’s death penalty. The Journal discovered that, although the majority of murder victims in North Carolina are black, only 18 percent of the state executions carried out between 1984 and the present were of prisoners whose victims were African-American. In contrast, four fifths of the executions were of prisoners whose victims were white.
Another way race has played a role in death penalty cases in North Carolina (as well as across the country) has been though jury selection. Although African-Americans constitute more than one fifth of North Carolina’s total population, between 1977 and the present 35 defendants in the state have received death sentences from all-white juries.
In light of these discrepancies and the unequal application of capital punishment in North Carolina, passage of the Racial Justice Act is a milestone achievement. The legislation has gained the support of clergy and civil rights leaders who have described it as “a clear signal that we are serious about removing any vestiges of racial discrimination in the administration of the death penalty.” In a joint statement published on the website of the North Carolina NAACP Chapter, the leaders went on to say that the Racial Justice Act has the potential to “make North Carolina a leader in the southeast on a matter of great importance to anyone who believes justice should be color blind.”