EJI won a new trial for death row inmate Jason Sharp today when the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals held that the Madison County prosecutor illegally excluded African-American potential jurors at Mr. Sharp’s capital trial. The court found the State’s assertion that it struck seven African Americans from jury service because they lacked “sophistication” was a pretext for racial bias.
During jury selection for Mr. Sharp’s trial in Madison County, Alabama, the State used its peremptory strikes to remove 11 of the 14 African Americans (nearly 80%) who qualified to serve on the jury. The State was not required to explain its strikes on the record at trial.
Last year, EJI intervened in Mr. Sharp’s case and raised the issue of racial bias in jury selection on appeal. The Alabama Supreme Court then found evidence of illegal racial bias in the record and ruled that “[i]f the State cannot provide racially neutral reasons for the use of its peremptory challenges against African-American veniremembers, Sharp must receive a new trial.”
At a hearing in the trial court, the State then attempted to justify its strikes against African Americans by asserting, among other things, that prosecutors struck seven of the eleven qualified African American potential jurors because they lacked “sophistication.” In its opinion today, the Court of Criminal Appeals found that “the State was using the term ‘sophistication’ as a synonym for ‘intelligence.'”
“In other words,” the court wrote, “63 percent of the State’s strikes against African-American jurors were based, at least in part, on those jurors’ supposed lack of intelligence. This is a troubling statistic in light of the historically suspect nature of this reason. Equally troubling is the fact that the record does not support any of the State’s strikes for this reason.”
The court’s rejection of lack of intelligence as a valid reason for excluding African Americans from jury service follows the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals’s recent decision ordering a new trial for Alabama death row prisoner Earl McGahee. The federal court in McGahee found that “the State’s claim that several African-Americans were of ‘low intelligence’ is a particularly suspicious explanation given the role that the claim of ‘low intelligence’ has played in the history of racial discrimination from juries.”
In this case, the Alabama appeals court found the low intelligence reason to be “even more suspect because it is unsupported by the record and based solely on group bias.” The State’s basis for asserting that jurors were not intelligent was that they worked in blue-collar jobs, such as a packer, forklift operater, custodian, and cafeteria manager, or were unemployed. The court held that the “nature of a person’s employment or the lack of employment, by itself, is not sufficient to establish a lack of intelligence” and found the State’s strikes were “clearly based on a group bias against blue-collar workers and the unemployed.”
The appeals court further found that, while the State struck seven African Americans based on lack of “sophistication” because they were unemployed or were employed in blue-collar jobs, the State did not strike white jurors who were unemployed or who shared other characteristics with Black potential jurors who were struck.
Other reasons offered by the State for excluding African Americans also were rejected as mere pretext for racial bias because they applied equally to whites who were not excluded; the State offered no evidence to support them; or they were based on group bias — such as one Black potential juror whom the State said it struck because she was a Seventh Day Adventist.
The court concluded that the State exercised its peremptory strikes in a discriminatory manner against African-Americans and ruled that Mr. Sharp is entitled to a new trial.
Challenging racially-biased exclusion of African Americans from juries in death-penalty cases like Mr. Sharp’s case is one part of EJI’s work to eradicate racial discrimination in jury selection.