It’s been more than a decade since a statewide study proved unequivocally that people of color are excluded from death penalty juries in North Carolina at twice the rate of white people.
That study should have set off alarm bells across our state’s court system, because it means Black and Brown citizens are deprived of their right to a voice in the justice system. It also means that people facing the ultimate punishment are deprived of the right to be tried by diverse juries, which are proven to more accurately weigh the evidence.
Instead, the process of remedying this injustice has been maddeningly slow. So far, only four people have been removed from death row under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, a sweeping 2009 law intended to root out racism in death sentences, and the vast majority of North Carolina’s 136 death row residents have still not had their evidence of jury discrimination heard in court.
Last week, however, a man who has spent nearly 30 years on death row finally had a chance to present evidence that Black jurors were illegally excluded from his trial. Frank Chambers, a Black man, was sent to death row in 1994 by a Rowan County jury that included only a single non-white member. The evidence of discrimination was so extensive that the hearing took an entire week.
At Mr. Chambers’ trial, prosecutors used peremptory strikes to rid the jury of six out of nine Black citizens who appeared for jury service. However, they didn’t stop at removing Black jurors at more than three times the rate of whites. They also subjected prospective Black jurors to racist questions, such as whether they would be subject to criticism from their “Black friends” if they voted to convict a person of their own race.
Later, prosecutors’ private notes revealed that they had underlined the names of Black jurors and clearly labeled them with “B/F” and “B/M.” In one case, a prosecutor explicitly listed the word “race” as a reason for striking the juror. The evidence could hardly be more clear: Prosecutors illegally excluded African American citizens, ensuring that a Black man facing execution would not be tried by a jury of his peers.
We feel some vindication that this evidence has finally come to light. We hope Mr. Chambers will finally get the justice he deserves, and that his racist conviction will not stand.
However, this case is just one of dozens of death row cases where there is evidence of pervasive racism. Racism is a systemic problem not an individual one, and addressing death penalty racism one case at a time feels like using a washcloth to mop up a flood of injustice.
That’s why, in addition to supporting partners like the Center for Death Penalty Litigation as they continue to seek justice in the courts, we are asking Gov. Cooper for a more sweeping solution. North Carolina’s entire death penalty system is tainted by racism, and Gov. Cooper can and must use his power to commute all our states’s death sentences to prison terms.
To show your support for Mr. Chambers, you can attend closing arguments in his case on June 16 at 10 a.m. in the Rowan County Courthouse in Salisbury.