Edith Ferguson and her son Charles Morton
African Americans Illegally Barred From Serving on Juries Sue Alabama Prosecutor Over Racial DiscriminationOctober 24, 2011

On October 19, 2011, the Equal Justice Initiative filed a civil rights lawsuit contending that District Attorney Douglas Valeska has illegally excluded qualified African Americans from serving on Houston and Henry County, Alabama, juries in serious felony cases, especially capital cases, for decades. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of African Americans who were barred from serving on juries after being summoned to court, was filed in the federal district court in Montgomery, Alabama, and alleges violations of the U.S. Constitution and federal anti-discrimination laws. Lawyers believe the class action is the first-ever civil suit directed at a prosecutor's racially discriminatory use of peremptory strikes and filed by actual victims of discrimination.

The plaintiffs are five African Americans who state courts previously found were illegally excluded from jury service because they are black. The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, including ongoing federal court monitoring of jury selection in Houston and Henry Counties.

The complaint alleges that, from 2006 to 2010, state prosecutors in Dothan used peremptory strikes to exclude 82% of qualified black jurors in death-penalty cases. As a result, the jury in every death-penalty case in Houston County over this period has been all white or had only a single black juror despite the fact that the circuit is nearly 25% African American. Houston County has the highest per capita death sentencing rate in Alabama.

"Removing people from a jury on the basis of race is shameful and inexcusable," said Plaintiff Vicky Allen Brown. In 1998, an Alabama appellate court concluded that Valeska's office illegally struck Brown from jury service in a capital trial because of her race. An accountant who was born and raised in Houston County, Brown joined the lawsuit to expose and challenge Valeska's illegal jury selection practices because "many times you cannot do anything about discrimination – especially when it is committed by public officials who know how to disguise and justify their behavior."

Alabama appellate courts have reversed several cases after finding that Valeska's office excluded black prospective jurors in order to ensure that African Americans would not be on juries and that Valeska and his assistants were unfairly suspicious of black potential jurors.

"Mr. Valeska has repeatedly been found to have illegally excluded black people from jury service with peremptory strikes in capital cases but he continues the practice because most people don't know about it," said Bryan Stevenson, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "The underrepresentation and exclusion of people of color from juries has seriously damaged the credibility and reliability of the criminal justice system. Individual case reversals haven't stopped this illegal practice, so there must be greater accountability."

The complaint also alleges that Valeska's racially discriminatory use of peremptory challenges violates the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which provides criminal penalties for officials who exclude any qualified citizen from jury service on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Department of Justice has not enforced this anti-discrimination law since its passage more than 135 years ago.

"Reports and advocacy are important for exposing racial discrimination," said Houston County civil rights leader Pastor Kenneth Glasgow. "But we need a lawsuit like this one to give anti-discrimination laws some teeth."

The plaintiffs are among hundreds of people of color called for jury service throughout the South who have been illegally excluded from juries after prosecutors asserted pretextual reasons to justify their removal, as documented in EJI's recent study, Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy. African Americans have been barred from juries because they wore eyeglasses; were single, married, or separated; were too old for jury service at age 43 or too young at 28; and for countless other reasons that courts have rubber-stamped as "race-neutral." Many of these assertions are false, humiliating, demeaning, and injurious.

Attorneys contend that Valeska's illegal removal of qualified African Americans subjected the plaintiffs and all excluded African Americans to profound personal humiliation and harms the entire community by undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system.

Plaintiffs are also represented by attorneys with the law firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.