By Elizabeth Hambourger
No one should have been on the edge of their seat about the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial. He was caught on video kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd begged for his life. But this is America, where police are almost never held accountable, so we held our breath and prepared for Chauvin to be acquitted.
But in this rare case, a jury of six white, four Black and two multiracial people provided a measure of justice, finding Chauvin guilty of murder. Surely, the jury’s diverse makeup helped it reach this much-needed verdict.
Yet, it’s exactly this kind of diversity that prosecutors often work to avoid. They strike Black citizens from juries at far higher rates than whites. Then, when they’re accused of violating the law prohibiting racist jury strikes, they offer the flimsiest possible defenses. And no matter how implausible their excuses are, they almost always get away with it.
Especially in North Carolina, where the courts have never overturned a case because of racist jury selection, prosecutors have been allowed to break the law with impunity.
But the N.C. Supreme Court may finally be ready to change that. Last week, the state’s highest court agreed to take a closer look at the cases of two men on North Carolina’s death row, Russell Tucker and Christopher Bell, both of whom have compelling evidence that prosecutors unfairly removed Black citizens from their juries.
Tucker and Bell’s cases present our state’s highest court with the clearest evidence yet of the ways prosecutors win death sentences by racially skewing North Carolina juries, and their cases offer the best opportunity to finally do something about it.
In Christopher Bell’s case, the prosecutor removed most of the Black jurors in the pool. Then, in closing argument, he compared Bell and his co-defendants, all young Black men, to “predators of the African plain” as he urged the mostly white Sampson County jury to sentence them to death.
When asked to explain his removal of Black citizens from Bell’s jury, the prosecutor defended himself by claiming that he removed one woman not because she was Black but because she was female. Gender discrimination in jury selection is just as unlawful as race discrimination. That this prosecutor so openly traded one unconstitutional reason for another reflects the impunity fostered by years of indifference from our courts. What’s more, despite the prosecutor’s confession of discrimination, the lower court found nothing wrong with his actions.
Russell Tucker’s case is equally clear. When asked to explain their removal of every single Black citizen from Tucker’s jury, Forsyth County prosecutors parroted reasons from a cheat sheet that had been distributed at a training seminar — a cheat sheet specifically designed to help prosecutors disguise their strikes of Black jurors. They claimed they struck Black men and women for subjective and derogatory reasons like “bad” body language or not making eye contact. They struck one Black woman because she rented her home and wasn’t registered to vote, saying she lacked a “stake in the community” even though she’d lived her whole life and raised her family there. The same prosecutor accepted white jurors who rented homes or weren’t registered to vote.
This evidence must also be placed against the backdrop of statewide studies showing that North Carolina prosecutors remove Black jurors at twice the rate of whites. Nearly half the people on North Carolina’s death row were sentenced to death by all-white jury or a jury with only one person of color. In a state as diverse as North Carolina, that’s inexcusable.
Especially when people’s lives are on the line, it’s critical that courts ensure fair trials untainted by racism. Recently, North Carolina appellate courts have started to take the problem more seriously.
In the Chauvin case, the jury brought healing by acknowledging reality: Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in the middle of the day, on a city street, while a crowd of people watched.
It’s time for the N.C. Supreme Court to also acknowledge reality: Prosecutors discriminate against Black jurors in open court, and they’ve been allowed to get away with weak excuses for far too long.
Elizabeth Hambourger is a capital defense attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.