Thursday, March 20, 2008

Racial Bias, Jury Selection and Capital Punishment

One of the many different areas of race and the death penalty we discuss in 3150 is related to jury selection, peremptory challenges, and discrimination.

In 1986 the Supreme Court took on the topic of racial discrimination in the voir dire process (jury selection) in the case Batson v. Kentucky. Creating what became known as the "Batson Rule", the court forbade prosecutors from blatantly striking potential jurors based on race without providing a "race neutral" explanation, if objected to by the defense (and affirmed by the trial judge). In essence, the defendant's 6th amendment (jury of peers) and 14th amendment rights (equal protection) were being violated if the prosecutor's actions were discriminatory, according to Batson.

In the case Miller-El v. Dretke (2005) the court ruled 6-3 the portion of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (which forbade defendants sentenced before 1996 from seeking relief under Batson) was unconstitutional. The majority in Miller-El argued that defendants can come back to the federal courts and seek habeas if it could be shown that, at trial, the Batson rule had been violated (Miller-El had been sentenced in 1985).

Yesterday in the case Snyder v. Louisiana (2008) the court reaffirmed and strengthened, 7-2, the Batson rule as it relates to both capital and non-capital trials, reversing a Louisiana death row inmate's conviction after it was shown that the trial judge erred in allowing some of the prosecution's racially-biased challenges (at one point the prosecutor supposedly told jurors that the Snyder case was "my O.J. Simpson case" and that jurors shouldn't allow Snyder to "get away with it" as O.J. had).

The reason this is significant is because, as Stephen B. Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said, "The court's decision saying you can't discriminate in choosing juries was really being ignored. The court very resoundingly told judges and prosecutors that striking jurors on the basis of race must end."

Given the ongoing "dialogue on race" we are supposedly having in the country at the moment, the court definitely stepped in and said flatly, racial discrimination in jury selection will not stand.

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