Term Paper: Racial Discrimination and the Death

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[. . .] 6% were white and roughly three percent were Hispanic (Coker pp). The fact that drug enforcement task force efforts were responsible for fifty-one percent of the cases was explained, "the defendants in these drug-related cases are not White because the members of the drug gangs that engage in large-scale trafficking in the district are not White" (Coker pp). In response to racial disparities in plea bargaining the survey's author suggested that African-Americans and Hispanics were more inclined to reject a plea offer than whites, yet offered no evidence, empirical or anecdotal, to support any of the claims (Coker pp).

Michael J. Klarman reports in the October 01, 2000 issue of the Michigan Law Review the constitutional law of state criminal procedure was born between World War I and World War II (Klarman pp). Before 1920, the Supreme Court had upset the results of the state criminal justice system in a "handful" of cases, all of which involved race discrimination in jury selection (Klarman pp). However, by 1940 the Court had interpreted the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to invalidate state criminal convictions in a wide variety of settings, including "mob-dominated trials, violation of the right to counsel, coerced confessions, financially-biased judges, and knowingly perjured testimony by prosecution witnesses" (Klarman pp). Moreover, the Court had broadened its earlier decision forbidding race discrimination in jury selection in ways that made it "practically as well as theoretically possible to establish equal protection violations in that context" (Klarman pp). The Supreme Court decided six landmark state criminal procedure cases between the years of the World Wars' era, four of which involved black criminal defendants convicted and sentenced to death after unfair trials (Klarman pp). In Moore v. Dempsey, the Court interpreted the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to forbid criminal convictions obtained through mob-dominated trials, in Powell v. Alabama, it ruled that the Due Process Clause requires state appointment of counsel in capital cases and overturned convictions where defense counsel had been appointed the morning of trial (Klarman pp). In Norris v. Alabama, the Supreme Court reversed a conviction under the Equal Protection Clause where blacks had been intentionally excluded from juries, and in order to reach that result the Court had to revise the critical "subconstitutional" rules that previously had made such claims nearly impossible to prove (Klarman pp). In Brown v. Mississippi, the Court construed the Due Process Clause to forbid criminal convictions based on confessions extracted through torture (Klarman pp).

In the Moore case, six black defendants appealed imposed death sentences for a murder allegedly committed during the infamous race riot in Phillips County, Arkansas in 1919, when a group of whites shot into a black union meeting at a church and blacks returned gunfire, killing a white man (Klarman pp). Apparently whites went on a rampage against blacks, tracking them down through the rural county, and killing as many as 250 of them, yet seventy-nine blacks, and no whites, were prosecuted as a result of the riot, twelve of whom received the death penalty for murder (Klarman pp). Six were involved in the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in Moore v. Dempsey, where the Court reversed their convictions on the ground that mob-dominated trial proceedings violated the Due Process Clause (Klarman pp). Both Powell v. Alabama and Norris v. Alabama arose out of the famous Scottsboro Boys episode, in which nine black youths, ranging in age from thirteen to twenty, impoverished, illiterate, and transient, were charged with raping two young white women, alleged to be prostitutes, on a freight train in northern Alabama in the spring of 1931 (Klarman pp). The defendants were tired in a mob-dominated atmosphere, and eight of them received the death penalty, yet the state supreme court reversed on of the death sentences on the ground that the defendant was too young to be executed under state law, and affirmed the other seven sentences (Klarman pp). The U.S. Supreme Court twice reversed the Scottsboro Boys' convictions, "the first time on the ground that they had been denied the right to counsel, and the second time on the ground that blacks had been intentionally excluded from the grand jury that indicted them and the trial jury that convicted them" (Klarman pp). In Brown v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court reversed the death sentences of three black sharecroppers convicted of murdering their white landlord, because the principal evidence against the defendants was their own confessions which were extracted through torture (Klarman pp). The Court ruled that convictions so obtained violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Klarman pp).

These four cases arose out of three similar episodes in which blank defendants were charged with serious crimes against whites and were nearly lynched before their cases could be brought to trial (Klarman pp). In all three episodes, mobs comprised of hundreds or even thousands of whites surrounded the courthouse during the trial, demanding swift execution, and lynchings were avoided only through the presence of armed state militiamen surrounding the courthouse (Klarman pp). Moreover, even at the time of the trial, there was serious doubt as to whether any of the defendants was in fact guilty of the crime charged, and in all three cases, defense lawyers were appointed either the day of or the day before the trial, "with no adequate opportunity to consult with their clients, to interview witnesses, or to prepare a defense strategy" (Klarman pp). The trials took place quickly after the alleged crimes, less than a week afterward in Brown, twelve days in Powell, and a month in Moore, and were completed in a matter of hours, (only forty-five minutes in Moore), and the juries, which excluded any blacks, deliberated for only a matter of minutes before imposing death sentences (Klarman pp).

Most conclude that these trials were simply one step removed from lynching, and were basically legal lynching (Klarman pp). Reported lynchings had declined dramatically by the 1920's, and although there were several contributing factors, the decline was also dependent on the fact that lynchings were being replaced by quick trials that reliably produced guilty verdicts, death sentences, and rapid executions (Klarman pp). In fact, Arkansas actually enacted a law designed to prevent lynchings by providing for a special term of court in cases of rape or other crimes that were likely to arouse the passions of the public, stating that a trial was to take place within ten days of the alleged crime (Klarman pp). Thus, the state-imposed death penalty in these cases was simply a formalization of the lynching process, and in the small number of cases where defendants in mob-dominated trials were acquitted, they often were shot dead by the mob before they could leave the courthouse (Klarman pp).

The Alabama Supreme Court had previously reversed convictions in cases similar to Scottsboro on the ground that a change of venue should have been granted owing to mob domination, yet in Powell, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that a fair trial was possible notwithstanding the presence of a mob surrounding the courthouse and that the right to counsel had been satisfied notwithstanding the farcical appointment of counsel the morning of the trial (Klarman pp).

Litigation, although it could not begin a social revolution, may have laid the groundwork for future civil rights protests due to several distinct objectives (Klarman pp). First, litigation taught blacks that they had rights, though they must fight for their enforcement, such as the NAACP's political campaign during the inter-war era for a federal anti-lynching bill (Klarman pp). Litigation also provided salutary examples to black communities of black accomplishment and courage, such as the presence of black lawyers in southern courtrooms (Klarman pp).

Following World War II, there was a resurgence in lynchings, maimings, and race riots, leading President Truman in 1946 to appoint his famous civil rights committee, which started a chain of events resulting in 1948 in the Democratic Party's adoption of a landmark civil rights platform and in Truman's issuance of executive orders desegregating the military and the federal civil service (Klarman pp). And most importantly, this same dynamic accounts for the enactment of landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, in response to the brutality inflicted on black demonstrators in Birmingham and Selma (Klarman pp). Thus, as Klarman points out, the backlash Brown v. Board of Education produced in southern politics ultimately generated its own counterbacklash which rendered possible the enactment of revolutionary civil rights legislation, proving that Supreme Court decisions sometimes have unpredictable consequences (Klarman pp).

Scott Howe writes in the April 01, 2004 issue of William and Mary Law Review that the modern effort to regulate capital sentencing grew largely out of concerns about racial discrimination (Howe pp). Since 1963, the specter of racial prejudice animated the agenda for reform, and efforts within the Supreme Court to promote racial neutrality in death sentencing coincided with… [END OF PREVIEW]

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