G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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I hadn’t seen much in the news on a capital punishment case out of Texas involving a 51 year-old black woman named Kimberly McCarthy whose scheduled execution was pushed back from the end of January to April 3:
McCarthy was found guilty of murdering her 71-year-old white neighbour, Dorothy Booth [ed: a retired psychology professor; I'd think this fact would subconsciously nudge many juries towards a harsher sentence], in 1998. She was accused of entering Booth’s home after telling her victim she wished to borrow sugar and then killing Booth and chopping off her finger to steal a diamond ring. Prosecutors have also claimed McCarthy was responsible for the murder of two other women.
When sentencing was delivered in her trial, McCarthy became the first woman to face the death sentence in the US in more than two years.
However, McCarthy’s lawyers argue their client has been discriminated against. Maurie Levin of the University of Texas capital punishment clinic said she was pleased that defense lawyers would “now have an opportunity to present evidence of discrimination in the selection of the jury that sentenced Kimberly McCarthy to death.”
Levin and her co-attorneys say that jury selection at McCarthy’s trial was racially slanted, with all but one of the 13 jurors white. This, says Levin, is not entirely representative of the population of Dallas County, which is almost a quarter black.
McCarthy’s legal team contest that this imbalance is typical of wider systemic discrimination in Texas in capital cases and particularly in Dallas County. They point out that, while the county is 23 percent black and 69 percent white, 37 percent of the 31 individuals on death row from Dallas County are black. They add that 22 percent are Latino and 37 percent are white.
2. While Dallas County does not publish crime demographics, Dallas Police provided some detailed race demographics for murders in the years 2008 and 2009.
The Louisville Courier-Journal analyzed 34,000 potential jurors summoned in one year and reported:
Blacks also are less likely to report for jury duty because many distrust the criminal justice system and because jury pay is so low that they can’t afford to serve, court officials said.
Q: If judges are doing their job, why do so few African Americans end up seated on federal juries?
A: Almost everyone agrees the problem arises because a disproportionately high number of African-American residents don’t respond to the initial questionnaire.
Q: If the court doesn’t know the race of those summoned for jury duty, how does it know the race of those who fail to respond?
A: It doesn’t. But the nonresponse rate for juror questionnaires mailed to Wayne County has consistently been at least twice as high as the nonresponse rate in other counties. And Wayne County is where most of the region’s African-American citizens live.
For example, 25% of prospective jurors in Wayne County failed to respond to jury questionnaires mailed in August 2008, compared to 10% or less in six surrounding counties. By August 2010, the recession had pushed nonresponse rates higher everywhere, but Wayne’s 53% nonresponse rate was again nearly double that of any other county.
Beyond the fact that blacks are less likely to be summoned for duty because they aren’t registered to vote, don’t have driver’s licenses or steady mailing addresses, or because a lower percentage refuse to show up for duty tryouts, there is a very legitimate feeling among prosecutors that a prospective black juror is more likely to be a jury nullifier.
Prof. Paul Butler of George Washington Law School is merely encapsulating a common attitude among blacks. When you sum all of these factors together it’s no wonder that blacks are so underrepresented among jurors.