We already know from our experience with the Racial Justice Act how prosecutors work to keep juries in capital cases overwhelmingly white, using the tool of peremptory strikes. Now, new evidence shows that another insidious tool further skews juries toward white and male — and makes it all but impossible for Black women to have a voice in the capital punishment system.
“Death disqualification” is a long-standing policy that requires trial judges to exclude anyone who doesn’t support the death penalty from serving on a capital jury. This policy has become especially problematic as the number of North Carolinians who support the death penalty shrinks. It means that anyone who has been paying attention to evidence of racism, wrongful convictions, and other injustices in the system — and come to the logical conclusion that they can no longer tolerate such a system — is excluded from serving on a capital jury.
Thanks to this policy, jury service in capital cases is restricted to a small segment of the population that is more likely to be white and male, making a mockery of the promise of a jury of one’s peers and the idea that a jury should serve as the conscience and voice of the community.
Now, the ACLU is challenging death disqualification in the case of Brandon Hill, who is facing a capital trial this year in Wake County. A motion to end the practice was filed earlier this month. If Mr. Hill is successful in his challenge, the impact could extend beyond his case to other death penalty cases at the trial level.
A disturbing new study of the past ten Wake County capital trials shows that the practice of death disqualification excluded Black potential jurors at more than twice the rate of white jurors, and Black women at the highest rates of all. It also showed that Wake County prosecutors used peremptory strikes to remove Black citizens at more than twice the rate of white jurors, also targeting Black women most often.
These two practices, peremptory strikes and death disqualification, are the one-two punch that keeps juries white. Working together, they are the reason that close to half of the 136 people on NC’s death row were convicted by juries that were all white or had only a single person of color.
[Read Death Qualified, an essay by Paul Brown about the experience of being sentenced to death by an all-white jury.]
While racist jury exclusion is a problem across the state, we especially hope Wake DA Lorrin Freeman will pay close attention. In recent years, Freeman has prosecuted more people for the death penalty than any other district attorney in the state. And the evidence clearly shows that Black people are being excluded from those juries, in addition to people of faith who oppose the death penalty on religious grounds.
In the case of Nate Holden, who Freeman tried capitally before the same judge presiding in Brandon Hill’s case, lawyers are now challenging the exclusion of seven Black women from the jury that convicted him.
It’s time to start standing up against practices like death disqualification that unfairly exclude people of color, among other groups, from making decisions in our most serious cases. When life and death hangs in the balance, decisions should reflect the will of the entire community — not a small subset that is most prone to convict.
To make your voice heard and be part of upcoming actions in Brandon Hill’s case, stay tuned to NCCADP’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, or sign up for our newsletter.