Federal Court Reverses Death Sentence Because of South Carolina Prosecutor’s Racially Biased Arguments


A federal court in South Carolina granted relief to Johnny Bennett, an African American man who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury, because the sentencing proceedings were “infected” by the “injection of race by the prosecutor” and the “seating of a racially biased juror.”

The court found that Lexington County prosecutor Donald Myers had “made multiple statements clearly calculated to excite the jury with racial imagery and stereotypes.” He elicited irrelevant evidence that Mr. Bennett had a sexual relationship with a white woman and elicited testimony from a white witness whom Mr. Bennett had assaulted as a teenager that he had later dreamed he was “being chased by Black savages.”

During closing argument, Myers called Mr. Bennett “King Kong” — a comparison that invoked “the long and ugly history of depicting African Americans as monkeys and apes.” The prosecutor also called Mr. Bennett a “monster,” a “caveman” and a “beast of burden.” The court wrote that the prosecutor’s King Kong reference “was even more racially loaded than a comparison to the Petitioner simply as an ape or monkey” because it “involved a giant ape who escaped from captivity, kidnapped a white woman, and went on a murderous rampage… Indeed, the original German version of the movie, released in 1933 Nazi Germany, carried the title that translated to ‘King Kong and the White Woman.'”

The federal judge wrote that these references were “a not so subtle dog whistle on race that this Court cannot and will not ignore.” The court vacated Mr. Bennett’s death sentence because the prosecutor’s racialized comments were improper and profoundly prejudicial to Mr. Bennett. “[A] decision on death, the one judicial act that cannot be later corrected, must be made under circumstances not infected by distracting and inciting racial imagery that harken back to a dark day of our country’s past.”

As DPIC reported, Myers has been chief prosecutor for South Carolina’s Eleventh Judicial Circuit since 1977, and under his tenure, the circuit has produced 39 death sentences, more than any of the state’s 15 other circuits. The circuit’s death sentencing rate is the highest in the state, and Myers personally obtained all of the death verdicts handed down in the circuit. He recently announced that he will not seek re-election because he is approaching the mandatory retirement age.

The court further found that a juror who testified that he thought Mr. Bennett “was just a dumb n–r” was racially biased. “[T]his Court has ‘considerable difficulty accepting … that, at this time in our history, people who use the word ‘n–r’ are not racially biased.'” Moreover, the juror “showed that his racial bias actually influenced his thoughts” on Mr. Bennett. “[I]f this blatant statement of racial hostility does not amount to evidence of constitutionally impermissible racial bias,” the court concluded, “it is hard to imagine what evidence could meet that standard.”