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Criminal Law Newsletter

The Death Penalty and Racial Discrimination Underlying Jury Decisions

The U.S. Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the death penalty under the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment. Although the Court has not held the death penalty to be unconstitutional in all cases, the Court has barred imposition of the death penalty in cases where execution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment (e.g., executions of the mentally retarded).

Throughout history, there has been a notable disproportion in the imposition of the death penalty on African-American defendants accused of interracial crimes (e.g., “black-on-white” murder). Although the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to find an Eighth Amendment violation based on the statistical showing of racial disparity in capital punishment cases alone, the Court has added some measures of protection against jury bias in capital punishment cases. Specifically, the Court has held that “a capital defendant accused of an interracial crime is entitled to have prospective jurors informed of the race of the victim and questioned on the issue of racial bias.”

The Right to an Impartial Jury in Criminal Prosecutions

The rule that a capital defendant accused of an interracial crime is entitled to have potential jurors questioned on the existence of racial bias is warranted under the Sixth Amendment. In significant part, the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants “the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.”

One requirement of impartiality is that the jurors chosen must be unbiased. The defense and the prosecution have the opportunity to inquire into the potential biases of prospective jurors during “voir dire” (the process of interviewing prospective jurors). If a juror’s personal views would prevent the performance of the juror’s duties, then the juror may be excluded from the jury panel.

“Special Circumstances” for Inquiry into Racial Bias

Imposition of criminal penalties may be racially determined, when jurors selectively empathize with victims of their own race. However, the Court has held that inquiry into the specific racial or ethnic prejudice of a potential juror is not required in all criminal trials where the defendant is black and the victim is white. Rather, the Constitution only requires questioning prospective jurors about racial or ethnic bias under “special circumstances.”

The special circumstances under which the Court has required asking jurors specifically about racial bias in non-death penalty cases include when “racial issues are inextricably bound up with the conduct of the trial.” In 1976, the Court approved the trial judge’s refusal to question jurors specifically about racial prejudice in Ristaino v. Ross, where a black defendant was tried and convicted for violent crimes against a white security guard. In that case, inquiry into the general impartiality of prospective jurors was sufficient. The Court distinguished the facts of this case from other cases where specific questioning about racial prejudice was required, reasoning that racial issues were not bound up with the conduct of the trial.

Racial Bias in Death Penalty Cases

Due to the finality of the death sentence and the heightened risk of racial prejudice in light thereof, the Court has held that there are some circumstances under which the Sixth Amendment requires that a jury in a capital sentencing proceeding be asked specifically about racial bias. In 1986, the Court held in Turner v. Murray that the trial judge committed reversible error by refusing a black defendant’s request to question prospective jurors on racial prejudice. In that case, the capital defendant was sentenced to death for the murder of a white storekeeper.

Striking down the death sentence, the Court reasoned that there is an “unacceptable risk” that racial bias may “infect” the capital sentencing proceeding where the crime charged involves interracial violence. However, the Court also held that a capital defendant cannot complain of a failure to question the jury on racial prejudice, unless the defendant has specifically requested such an inquiry.

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