When I was a young Black lawyer in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, there was an unwritten rule in North Carolina’s courtrooms: Though race shaped every aspect of the criminal punishment system, we were not to mention it, let alone raise objections to it. Well over a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial discrimination in jury selection, I objected to Black people being excluded from a jury. The judge not only angrily overruled my objection, but also hastily hauled me into his chambers to berate me for “seeing race in everything.” Although, at the time, I did not “see race in everything,” I have come to realize that perhaps I should have, because in reality, race has permeated practically everything in our criminal punishment system.
Today, we can no longer ignore the racism at the heart of this system. Videos of police officers beating people like my former client, Johnnie Rush, who was brutally beaten and falsely accused of “jaywalking” at midnight in Asheville, and of George Floyd, pinned to the ground and publicly executed in Minneapolis as he cried for his mother, saying, “I can’t breathe,” and many others, have made this painfully clear. People are marching in the streets and demanding change. Two weeks ago, amid these protests, our state Supreme Court issued a momentous decision requiring us to take an honest look at racism and the death penalty.
In its decision, the court declined to ignore evidence that Black people have been systematically denied the right to serve on capital juries. Instead, the evidence must be fully addressed, not just for the good of a few defendants, but for the sake of our courts’ integrity. As Justice Anita Earls, herself African-American, wrote, the harm of racial discrimination in criminal cases “undermines the integrity of our judicial system and extends to society as a whole.”
This victory lifts the knee off the necks of people sent to death row after racist trials, and breathes new life into the Racial Justice Act. The RJA will take its place in the history of other civil rights I have dedicated my career to advancing: integrated public schools, fair employment and the right to vote.
The RJA promised the people of North Carolina that no one would be executed in our names if race played a role in the death sentence. The RJA recognized that the death penalty is a powerful symbol of the state’s power, one that sits at the summit of our criminal punishment system.
The RJA revealed that prosecutors exclude Black citizens from death penalty juries at astonishingly disproportionate rates, and have even been trained to circumvent legal protections against racist jury selection.
It also led us to discover outrageous prosecutor notes reminiscent of those made during the trial of my Wilmington 10 clients in 1972. Prosecutors in my client Quintel Augustine’s case labeled one potential Black juror a “thug,” another a “blk wino.”
The RJA revealed more than some of our legislators wanted to see, and, in 2013, the law was repealed by a General Assembly different from the one that passed it in 2009. This new legislature – the very same one federal courts found have enacted racially discriminatory voting laws that targeted and disenfranchised African Americans “with surgical precision” – turned its back on our commitment to eradicate race discrimination in the death penalty.
In many ways, this is an old story. Throughout history, civil rights advances have met with resistance. I was attending junior high at an all-Black school in Asheville when Brown v. Board of Education was decided. As North Carolina vehemently resisted Brown, I waited September after September to attend an integrated school. It was only years later, after the federal courts accepted the argument of my firm’s client James Swann and stepped up to enforce it, that the promise of Brown was realized.
Now, the North Carolina Supreme Court has stepped up to say our state’s decades of tolerating race discrimination in death penalty cases are over. Our state must now reckon with undeniable and irrefutable evidence that Black citizens are denied the right to serve on capital juries solely because of the color of their skin.
We must finally bring the evil of race discrimination out of the shadows and into the sunlight. We must speak honestly about the ways it has distorted our capital punishment system and denied Black citizens access to the levers of power in our most serious cases. Only once we have done that can we begin to build a new structure that truly seeks justice.
James Ferguson is one of the attorneys who represent men and women on death row in litigation under the N.C. Racial Justice Act. He is a founding partner and the president of Ferguson, Chambers and Sumter in Charlotte, established in 1964 as the first racially integrated law firm in North Carolina. He has devoted his 52 years in the law to pursuing advances in civil rights.