Racially discriminatory practices by Alabama prosecutors, including the elimination of African American jurors because they appeared to be of “low intelligence,” were examined by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta, Georgia, in oral argument on October 20, 2008. Bryan Stevenson argued on behalf of Earl McGahee, who was tried by an all-white jury in a majority-Black county after the State excluded every African American from jury service.
Mr. McGahee, who is African American, was tried for capital murder in Dallas County, Alabama, in 1986, when the county was over 55% African American. During jury selection, the Dallas County prosecutor eliminated all of the African Americans. After striking eight potential African American jurors for legal cause, the prosecutor used his peremptory challenges to eliminate all 16 of the remaining potential African American jurors.
This practice resulted in Mr. McGahee being tried by an all-white jury in a county that was over 55% African American, and it violated Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), which prohibits exclusion of potential jurors based on their race, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The prosecutor asserted that he removed six of the potential jurors because of their alleged “low intelligence.” This assertion had no support in the record and came from a prosecutor whose office has repeatedly engaged in illegal racial discrimination during jury selection. The prosecutor did not ask these six jurors any questions about their educational backgrounds, grades, or IQ, but claimed to rely on the recommendation of an unidentified volunteer expert, supposedly in the “field concerning determination of jurors with reference to intelligence level,” who had little opportunity to observe these jurors.
The reasons the prosecutor gave for many of the other African American jurors he eliminated were contradicted in the record and were equally applicable to white potential jurors who served on Mr. McGahee’s jury. The prosecutor explained that he removed the final African American juror because he did not want him to be the only Black person on the jury.
Mr. McGahee appealed these issues to the Alabama state courts, which did not address the racially discriminatory history of this prosecutor and his office or the prosecutor’s explicit reliance on race and the purported “low intelligence” of potential African American jurors as a basis for removal from jury service. The federal district court found that parts of this claim were procedurally defaulted and erroneously refused to address them.