Alabama Man Freed From Death Row After Proving Prosecutor Illegally Barred African Americans from Jury ServiceMay 29, 2012

On May 18, 2012, Victor Stephens was taken off death row after 25 years and resentenced to life in prison. The result came after the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama on October 6, 2011, found that the Hale County prosecutor who tried the case illegally discriminated against African Americans during jury selection.

Victor Stephens is African American. During his capital trial, the prosecution illegally used 21 of its 23 peremptory strikes to remove eligible African Americans from serving on his jury. The defense objected, arguing that the prosecutor's strikes and the prosecutor's notes made during trial revealed racially biased jury selection in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

The law requires prosecutors to give reasons for strikes if the judge suspects there is racial discrimination during jury selection. In his notes, the prosecutor wrote "need reason to strike" next to two black jurors but no white jurors, for whom the prosecutor instead wrote actual reasons, such as "hard of hearing."

The defense argued that the fact that the State “need[ed a] reason to strike” two black jurors, while it did not “need [a] reason to strike” any white jurors, is direct evidence that the State first decided to strike these black jurors and then searched for a pretextual and facially race-neutral reason to give the court.

These notations, together with other evidence in the record, comprise overwhelming evidence proving the State illegally discriminated against African Americans in jury selection, the defense contended.

The federal court agreed, pointing out that the State's purported reasons for excluding African Americans were not supported by the record and, in some cases, were contradicted by the jurors' responses during jury selection.

The court further found the fact that the State had a chance to ask jurors about any discrepancies but did not suggests the prosecutor's explanation was a sham and a pretext for discrimination. "[Unless he had an ulterior reason for keeping [a potential juror] off the jury," the federal court reasoned, "this court would expect that the prosecutor would have cleared up any misunderstanding by asking further questions."

In contrast, the prosecutor did ask white potential jurors follow-up questions and did not strike white potential jurors who shared the same "reasons" as black jurors who were struck.

Concluding that the prosecutor illegally excluded black potential jurors based on their race, the federal court vacated Mr. Stephens's conviction and sentence, granting him a new trial. The State settled the case without a new trial and, on May 18, Mr. Stephens was re-sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

A recent report by EJI found that racially biased use of peremptory strikes and illegal racial discrimination in jury selection remains widespread, particularly in serious criminal cases and capital cases. Hundreds of people of color called for jury service have been illegally excluded from juries after prosecutors asserted pretextual reasons to justify their removal.