Rodricus Crawford became the 158th person exonerated from death row in the United States when the State of Louisiana formally dropped charges against him in April. His case epitomizes much of what’s wrong with the death penalty in America.
Despite autopsy results and credible expert evidence showing the child died from pneumonia and sepsis, Caddo Parish prosecutors alleged that Rodricus Crawford, a 23-year-old Black man, smothered his one-year-old son, and charged him with first-degree murder.
Prosecutor Dale Cox improperly removed Black jurors from Mr. Crawford’s jury, and in his closing statement, he told jurors that Jesus Christ commanded the death penalty for those who killed a child. Mr. Crawford was sentenced to death that evening.
A month later, Cox wrote a memo to the state’s probation department. “I am sorry that Louisiana has adopted lethal injection as the form of implementing the death penalty,” he wrote. “Mr. Crawford deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies.”
Mr. Crawford appealed, and in November 2016, the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered a new trial because Cox had improperly removed jurors on the basis of race. In a separate opinion, Justice Jeannette Knoll wrote that Mr. Crawford should have been acquitted. “No rational trier of fact could have concluded that the State presented sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had the specific intent to kill his one-year-old son,” she wrote.
Last month, the prosecutor’s office, no longer led by Dale Cox, dropped all charges against Mr. Crawford, explaining in a statement that “[n]ew evidence presented after the trial raised questions about the degree of pneumonia together with bacteria in the child’s blood indicative of sepsis are possibilities that require consideration.”
Caddo Parish sentenced more people to death per capita than any other county in America from 2010 to 2014. Seventy-seven percent of those sentenced to death in the past 40 years have been Black, and nearly half were convicted of killing white victims. No white person has been sentenced to death for killing a Black person in Caddo Parish.
Dale Cox obtained more than a third of Louisiana’s death sentences from 2010 to 2015. Data from 22 felony trials prosecuted by Cox revealed that he had struck Black jurors at a rate 2.7 times higher than other jurors. Researchers examining data from more than 300 felony trials prosecuted by the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office between 2003 and 2012 found that, overall, Caddo Parish prosecutors used peremptory strikes to exclude 46 percent of qualified Black jurors, but struck only 15 percent of jurors who were not Black.
Caddo Parish is 48 percent Black. But the typical 12-member criminal jury had fewer than four African American members, and the share of juries with two or fewer Black jurors was more than double what race-neutral jury selection would yield in Caddo, which has accounted for nearly half of Louisiana’s death sentences over the past five years.
Louisiana’s history of racial injustice provides a context for contemporary discrimination in Caddo Parish. In 1898, Louisiana rewrote its constitution to completely disenfranchise African Americans and to allow majority jury verdicts so that a jury with at least ten non-Black members could return a verdict without regard to the votes of the Black jurors. That majority-white juries in Caddo Parish have condemned to death mostly Black defendants at record rates likewise evokes Caddo’s history as a lynching stronghold.
In 2015, Dale Cox’s inflammatory comments about his excessive support for the death penalty — including the comment that Louisiana needs to “kill more people” — received national media coverage. Cox declined to run for re-election, and voters elected their first African American district attorney.