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Race & Justice News: Supreme Court to review Georgia death penalty case for racial bias

September 14, 2015
This fall, The Supreme Court will review a Georgia death penalty case where prosecutors used preemptory challenges to strike every black juror in a case against a black defendant accused of killing a white woman.

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Policing and Municipal Courts in Ferguson and Missouri

Today, the Ferguson Commission makes its recommendations on how to improve the social and economic conditions that received national attention after Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police. Recently, Judge Donald McCullin, a new municipal court judge in Ferguson, Missouri, ordered that all arrest warrants issued in the city before Dec. 31, 2014 be withdrawn, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Defendants will be given new court dates to resolve underlying charges, and future arrest warrants for minor traffic or housing code violations will result in another court date, rather than potential jail time. Governor Jay Nixon has also ordered a state commission to overhaul police training in Missouri. These and related reforms come five months after the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation concluded that “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”

A new report by ArchCity Defenders, authors of an earlier influential white paper on the troubled municipal court system, demonstrates that many St. Louis municipalities have worse practices than Ferguson, as reported in Newsweek. The organization recommends: “Order the consolidation of our 81 courts into a full-time, professional regional court system.”

Stop and Frisk in Chicago

The Chicago Police Department and the ACLU of Illinois have reached an agreement to reduce the scale and disparities of police stop and frisks, reports USA Today. Under the agreement, the police will track all stops, an independent consultant will produce public reports twice a year based on these data, and the police department will bolster officer training to decrease bias and protect constitutional rights. In March, the ACLU chapter issued a report showing that while blacks constitute about a third of the city’s population, they accounted for nearly three-quarters of police stops.

ABA-LDF Joint Statement on Eliminating Bias in the Criminal Justice System

The American Bar Association (ABA) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) have committed to promoting 12 reforms to eliminate racial bias in the criminal justice system. The reforms, identified through conversations with prosecutors and other criminal justice practitioners and experts, include improving data collection among police officers and prosecutors, matching the racial backgrounds of these professionals with the communities that they serve, increasing accountability through increased use of body and vehicle cameras among police, and reducing the collateral consequences of convictions. In a joint statement, ABA President William C. Hubbard and LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill write: “We regard these reforms as necessary investments that are essential to strengthening confidence in the rule of law and the legitimacy of our justice system.”

Persistent Racial Disparities Following Marijuana Reforms in Miami-Dade and Seattle

A multi-state study of marijuana reforms by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that while reforms reduced the overall number of arrests and cases related to marijuana, racial disparities persisted. “African Americans were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession after legalization or decriminalization than were people of all other races while marijuana possession was still criminalized,” write study authors Mike Males and Lizzie Buchen. For example, Seattle, continues to struggle with persistent racial disparities in marijuana arrests even after legalizing marijuana possession and private use for adults aged 21 and over. The Center’s report identifies best practices from two types of recent reforms – all-ages decriminalization and 21-and-older legalization – and recommends moving toward full legalization.

In Miami-Dade County, police now have the option to issue a fine for marijuana possession under 20 grams rather than making an arrest, but civil rights advocates worry about persistent racial disparities in arrests, according to the Miami Herald. Police Director J.D. Patterson’s policy stance encourages officers to issue citations if the suspect has no criminal history. But black youth may continue to be disproportionately arrested because of their records, explains attorney John de Leon, past president of the Miami ACLU. Reporter Charles Rabin notes that police officials have stated that “the goal of the new law has nothing to do with limiting the numbers of blacks arrested for what many consider such a minor offense.”

Students of Color More Likely to Receive Harsh Response to Misbehavior

Schools and school districts are more likely to apply a criminalized rather than a medicalized approach to student misbehavior when the students are African American, according to David M. Ramey’s study of 60,000 schools published in Sociology of Education. A criminalized approach addresses student misbehavior with suspension, expulsion and school-based arrests. A medicalized approach manages student misbehavior as a behavioral health concern, potentially meriting a modified curriculum and additional school support personnel to assist with behavioral needs.

Even when controlling for economic factors, white students’ misbehaviors are more often seen – by parents, teachers, and administrators – as symptoms of underlying behavioral disorders and not as marks of poor character. The study found little difference between the likelihood of a criminalized response for Hispanic students compared with their white peers.

Racial Disparities in School Discipline in Southern States

The New York Times reports on a new analysis of suspensions and expulsions in 13 Southern states by Edward J. Smith and Shaun R. Harper of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Black students constituted 24% of students in these school districts but accounted for 48% of suspensions and 49% of expulsions. Drawing on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the report measures racial disparity in suspensions in all 3,022 K-12 public school districts in the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. The authors recommend that “faculty in programs that prepare these professionals must introduce alternative approaches to zero tolerance into curricula and skill-building experiences. Otherwise, they will continue to be complicit in the harm disproportionately inflicted on Black children in P-12 schools.”

Advocacy and Reforms in Miami-Dade, Texas, and Compton

Attempting to keep students in class and break the school-to-prison pipeline, educators and policymakers have remodeled their approach to school misbehavior and truancy. Florida’s Miami-Dade County, the state’s largest school district, has joined Broward County in banning out-of-school suspensions. African American students comprise 23% of all students in Miami-Dade but received 38% of out-of-school suspensions last year.  In Texas, legislators passed a bill to end the criminalization of truancy. In 2013, more than 115,000 students were criminally charged in Texas’s adult courts for the crime of skipping school.  Harsh treatment of student misbehavior also underlies a class-action lawsuit in Compton, California, where the plaintiffs charge that their repeated exposure to violence requires the schools to accommodate the students’ trauma as a disability while prohibiting expulsion.

Justice Department Finds Racial Bias in St. Louis Youth Courts

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division issued a thorough report condemning the St. Louis County juvenile justice system for discriminatory bias against black youth as well as for widespread violations of all juveniles’ due process rights. The Department reviewed nearly 33,000 juvenile court cases from 2010 through 2013. After controlling for factors such as the severity of the offense and the alleged offenders’ histories and respective ages, the report found that compared with white youth, (1) black youth were one-and-a-half times as likely to have their cases formally processed in the juvenile court (thus giving fewer chances for diversion); (2) black youth were two-and-a-half times as likely to be detained pre-adjudication; (3) black youth who violated the terms of their parole were nearly three times as likely to be committed to secure facilities; and (4) black youth were more than two-and-a-half times as likely to be held post-adjudication.

The report also found that juveniles’ due process rights, such as access to counsel and protections against self-incrimination, were routinely violated. It is not yet clear how the allegations of the report will be addressed, though Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she is “optimistic” about a settlement without a lawsuit or appointment of a federal monitor.

Constitutional Concerns with Executions in Louisiana, Colorado, and Georgia

A recent analysis of Louisiana death penalty cases found that black males make up 61% of homicide victims in Louisiana, but “the likelihood of being executed for killing a black male is 48 times lower than for the killing of a white woman.”  Whites make up 26% of homicide victims, but they are 79% of the victims in cases that have ended in execution. Study authors Frank R. Baumgartner and Tim Lyman conclude that the death penalty has “long been reserved for crimes other than killing black men,” and thus violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Meg Beardsley and colleagues argue that Colorado’s “exceedingly rare” use of the death penalty and the extraordinary discretion prosecutors have over capital cases lead to an arbitrary and racially disparate application of the death penalty that violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In the rare cases when prosecutors did seek the death penalty, they were five times more likely to do so against minority defendants than against whites, and death penalty cases were found predominately in just one district. This suggests that prosecutorial discretion “is not a reliable force for ensuring the even-handed administration of the death penalty.”

This fall, the Supreme Court will review a Georgia death penalty case, where prosecutors used preemptory challenges to strike every black juror in a case against a black defendant accused of killing a white woman. The case, Foster v. Chatman, arose after the jury sentenced to death Timothy Tyrone Foster, a black teenage defendant, for the murder of an elderly white woman, Queen Madge White. As Linda Greenhouse explains, the prosecution’s notes from the jury selection “proved to be a road map of discrimination.” Black representation on juries is significant because the likelihood of an acquittal rises with the number of blacks on the jury, and yet studies in Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina show that prosecutors strike black jurors at double or triple the rates of whites.

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