Supreme Court Declines to Address Death Penalty Racial Bias


On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to review an Alabama death penalty case in which prosecutors unlawfully tagged every African American juror who was summoned to court, placing a “B” as in “Black” next to their names on the jury list, and then excluded 90 percent of them during jury selection for the capital trial.

The case was an appeal by Christopher Floyd of his conviction and death sentence from Houston County, Alabama. Prosecutors in Houston County have a documented history of racial discrimination in death penalty cases.

Despite the fact that the Houston County prosecutor’s office has a history of discrimination, the Supreme Court decided not to review the issue in Christopher Floyd’s case.  Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, wrote that the record does not support the prosecutor’s reasons for striking some of the jurors and observed that the reasons for striking at least two prospective Black jurors applied equally to people who were seated on the jury, and the “prosecutors justified the strikes of five women on the basis of age despite the fact that their ages ranged from 28 to 77.”

The justices reaffirmed that “courts must be steadfast in identifying, investigating, and correcting for improper bias in the jury selection process” because such discrimination “casts doubt on the integrity of the judicial process, and places the fairness of a criminal proceeding in doubt.”

Racial bias in the administration of the death penalty is a longstanding problem. The Supreme Court struck down the death penalty based on racial bias in the 1970s, and struggled in the 1980s with whether new capital punishment statutes enacted in the 1970s had adequately addressed racial discrimination in the death penalty.

Today, evidence continues to emerge that racial bias continues to plague the administration of the death penalty in America. Last year, the Court reversed a Georgia man’s conviction and death sentence after finding that Georgia prosecutors illegally barred African Americans from serving on the jury because of their race. And earlier this year, the Court struck down a death sentence imposed on a Texas man after an expert testified that he was more likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future because he is Black.

Racial bias “casts doubt on the integrity of the judicial process, and places the fairness of a criminal proceeding in doubt.”