The juror who voted to sentence Kenneth Rouse to die was straightforward in a post-trial interview. He believed that African-Americans were naturally more prone to commit crimes because “blacks do not care about living as much as whites do.” By his own admission, “bigotry” was a key factor in his decision on Rouse’s case.
The man had lied to earn his spot on the jury – failing to mention that his own mother had been murdered in a crime similar to the one for which Rouse stood accused – because he wanted to put his bigotry into action and help rid the world of a defendant he considered “one step above a moron.”
This kind of blatant racism among jurors who decide life and death cases flies in the face of a legal system that aims to ensure equal justice for all. Yet, until now, this kind of prejudice got a pass – thanks to laws that keep secret everything that is said and done in a jury room, no matter how egregious.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court said it’s time for that to change. In a 5-3 decision, the court said that open racial or ethnic bias in jury deliberations should be cause for overturning a verdict.
The decision came in a Colorado case where a juror argued for convicting a Latino man of sexual assault by saying, “I think he did it because he’s Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.”
It’s hard to say how often this kind of open prejudice comes into play behind the closed doors of jury rooms. But we know of at least two on North Carolina’s death row.
In the case of Robert Bacon, a black man who spent 14 years on death row after being sentenced by an all-white jury, the courts refused to consider a juror’s allegations that other jurors made racial jokes during the trial and held it against Bacon that he had dated a white woman. It took a grant of clemency from then-Gov. Mike Easley to finally get him off death row.
Kenneth Rouse, another black man sentenced by an all-white jury tainted by racism, hasn’t been so lucky. He was sent to death row in 1992, and remains there today.
The Supreme Court just keeps saying it louder and louder: Racial bias has no place in our court system, and especially not in death penalty cases. It’s time for North Carolina to start listening.