Cases of Race

A row of closed prison doors lining a long hallway; Rows of prison cells with closed doors, lined with metal bar railings

Race is the overwhelming element of our criminal justice system, no matter which side you’re on. 
—Scott Turow, author and attorney

RACE TO EXECUTION profiles two cases in which race played a pivotal role in sentencing the defendants to death. The United States criminal justice system has had a long and complex history with the death penalty, with the Supreme Court ruling both for and against it in different instances. Learn about some of the most important cases on race and the death penalty in recent U.S. history.

Furman v. Georgia, 1972

This landmark case was a United States Supreme Court decision that ruled on the requirement for a degree of consistency in the application of the death penalty. It effectively imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and struck down state systems that gave juries the ability to impose the death penalty.

Furman arose from the death sentences of three black men, William Henry Furman, Lucious Jackson and Elmer Branch. The juries in their cases were not given the correct criteria in deciding to vote for the death penalty. The Supreme Court struck down the three death sentences, finding that they consisted of cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Justice William O. Douglas concluded that the death penalty was inconsistently and disproportionately applied to those who were economically and socially disadvantaged. Although opponents of capital punishment initially hailed the case as a victory, Furman later enabled states to re-write their own capital punishment laws.

Gregg v. Georgia, 1976

Gregg v. Georgia reinstated the Supreme Court's use of the death penalty in the United States. The named defendant had been convicted of murder and then sentenced to death, a sentence later upheld by the Georgia State Supreme Court.

In a seven-to-two vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgia's "guided discretion" approach to capital punishment. It set out guidelines that states needed to follow in order to impose capital punishment, including providing objective criteria in sentencing defendants. The Supreme Court ruled that Georgia's capital sentencing scheme had met this criteria.

Batson v. Kentucky, 1986

In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors could not use race as a factor in eliminating potential jurors from the jury pool and that this practice violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

James Kirkland Batson was a black man convicted of burglary and receipt of stolen goods in a Kentucky court composed entirely of white jurors. The prosecutors had previously challenged and dismissed several potential jurors who were black.

Since then, the term "Batson challenge" has come to signify the act of claiming that a trial should be invalidated on the basis of challenges that excluded a certain group from the jury.

A sign reading ³Condemned Row² hangs on a wall over a metal cage; An empty room with a hospital gurney lined with thick straps

McCleskey v. Kemp, 1987: 2007 marks the 20th anniversary of this controversial case

McCleskey was the most far-reaching case involving race and the death penalty ever to be decided by the Supreme Court in the 20th century. Warren McCleskey was a black man convicted of murdering a white police officer in Georgia. In his defense, McCleskey brought before the court a study that clearly demonstrated that juries in Georgia are much more likely to impose the death penalty if the victim is white and the defendant is black, arguing that Georgia's prosecutors' decisions to seek death were tainted with race discrimination and violated the Fourteenth and Eighth Amendments.

The Supreme Court rejected this argument, ruling that race was a systemic problem, and that a pattern of racial bias must be proven case-by-case, person-by-person. Georgia's capital sentencing program was deemed constitutionally sound. Warren McKleskey was executed.

Miller-El v. Cockrell, 2003

In Texas, black defendant Thomas Miller-El pleaded not guilty and was convicted and sentenced to death for murder committed in the course of a robbery. He argued that the prosecution had violated his constitutional rights by excluding African Americans from serving on the jury, striking 10 of the 11 black potential jurors.

He petitioned the Supreme Court, which ruled in Miller-El's favor, stating that he should have been given the opportunity to prove that his sentence was the result of discriminatory jury practices, which included the "Texas shuffle" method of eliminating black jurors and a training memo that instructed prosecutors on how to skew juries on the basis of race.

Miller-El v. Dretke, 2005

Miller-El's case went to the Supreme Court a second time in 2005. This case addressed whether or not the court of appeals had possibly erred in reviewing Miller-El's claim that the prosecution had deliberately excluded black jurors, therefore violating Batson v. Kentucky.

The court once again ruled in Miller-El's favor. Prosecutors announced that they would seek a new trial.

Johnson v. California, 2005

Jay Shawn Johnson was found guilty of murdering his girlfriend's 19-month-old daughter. Prosecutors had dismissed the three potential jurors who were black by using peremptory challenges. Johnson appealed his conviction, claiming that California made it difficult to reveal discrimination during jury selection.

The Supreme Court reviewed the case for the second time in 2005 and sided with Johnson by an eight-to-one vote, citing that California's standards for reviewing Batson challenges were not in line with federal law.

Johnson was decided on the same day as Miller-El v. Dretke, marking two Supreme Court decisions regarding race and death penalty in the same year following nearly two decades of none at all.

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