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New Study on Race and Jury Selection Shows Impact of Race in Death Penalty Cases

We have been aware of the inequities prevalent in the U.S. prison system with respect to race in terms of both incarceration and sentencing since Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 and documented the impact of racism and its role in the judicial system. Now, a new study provides even more support for his findings and what many know anecdotally.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, will be detailed at a hearing next week in Fayetteville, N.C. It is the second of two reports that note the impact of race in death penalty cases in North Carolina and have become instrumental in  appeals in that state. The study documents that on all cases with people still on death row in North Carolina, qualified African Americans were kicked off the jury at two to three times the rate of white people, statewide for 20 years.

Specifically, the MSU research found that between 1990 and 2009, in more than 1,500 cases, North Carolina defendants of all races were more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of their alleged victims was white, and that in the cases of the 159 people currently on death row in the state, prosecutors removed prospective black jurors from jury panels at more than twice the rate that they struck prospective nonblack jurors.

Last year North Carolina enacted the Racial Justice Act, which lifts the death penalty in cases where a judge finds that race was a “significant factor” in the death sentence. As a result, executions have been on hold in North Carolina for the past five years and new information may further complicate the issue.

torrance stephens, ph.d.

Torrance Stephen authors the blog, follow him on twitter