May 11th, 2010
Arizona Law Bans Ethnic Studies Programs
In the wake of SB 1070, Arizona's controversial immigration law that opponents criticized as encouraging racial profiling, the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature passed another law, HB 2281, targeting Mexican American Studies classes in the Tucson School District. On May 11, 2010, Governor Jan Brewer signed the bill into law.
The law banned all classes alleged to “promote the overthrow of the United States government” or “promote resentment toward a race or class of people” and classes “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” which “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” In January 2012, the Tucson School District voted to cut the Mexican American Studies program in compliance with the new law, after the state superintendent's office threatened to withhold ten percent of the district’s annual funding, a total of $15 million.
Tom Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction, defended the measure, saying, “Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds . . . That is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into. Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism.” Referring to those who supported the Mexican American Studies program, Horne said, “They are the ‘Bull Connors.’ They are resegregating.”
In addition to cancelling the course, the Tucson School District also removed several books from its classrooms, including Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and The Tempest by William Shakespeare. In a meeting with Mexican American Studies teachers, administrators advised them to avoid any units that included “race, ethnicity, and oppression as central themes.”
September 6th, 2010
Alabama Prison Bans Pulitzer Prize-Winning Book, Slavery By Another Name
In September 2010, lawyers at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit civil rights law firm in Montgomery, Alabama, mailed a copy of Slavery by Another Name to client Mark Melvin, then incarcerated at Kilby Correctional Facility. Written by award-winning journalist Douglas Blackmon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book documents the little known history of convict leasing in Alabama in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the book’s title suggests, the exploitative and inhumane convict leasing system strongly resembled slavery. Under the pretext of criminal punishment, African Americans arrested on frivolous charges were sold to plantations, turpentine farms, mining companies, and railroads and forced to work in perilous conditions to pay off “debt” accumulated from unjust court costs and fines.
Deciding that the book’s title was “too provocative,” Kilby prison officials prohibited Mark Melvin from receiving Slavery by Another Name when it arrived in the mail. When Melvin used the internal grievance process to appeal the book’s banning, prison officials defended their decision and insisted the book was properly banned under a rule prohibiting material that incites “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.” Alabama prison officials had previously limited prisoners’ access to portrayals of Southern racial history; in the early 2000s, wardens in some Alabama prisons prohibited prisoners from watching a re-broadcast of the Roots miniseries.
In September 2011, represented by EJI lawyers, Mark Melvin sued the Alabama Department of Corrections to be able to read Slavery By Another Name. The civil litigation was settled in February 2013, when state officials finally agreed to allow prisoners to read the book.
November 5th, 2010
BART Officer Sentenced to Two Years in Fatal Shooting of Oscar Grant
On January 1, 2009, Johannes Mehserle and other officers responded to calls about a fight at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in the San Francisco bay area. The officers detained Oscar Grant, a twenty-two-year-old black man, and several other young black male passengers on the Fruitvale Station platform in Oakland, California. Hundreds of passengers in a stopped train watched the heated encounter and some recorded the events with cell phone cameras. While Mehserle and another officer held Grant face down on the ground, Mehserle stood, drew his gun, and shot Grant once in the back at close range. Grant died from his injuries later that day.
Cell phone video footage was distributed to various media outlets and uploaded to YouTube, enabling millions to watch the tragic events online. Oscar Grant’s death sparked riots and civil unrest provoked by the lack of accountability for police officers who target minorities with excessive force.
One week after the fatal shooting, Mehserle resigned and was charged with murder. He pleaded not guilty. At trial, he claimed he intended to use his stun gun on Grant and realized he had accidentally pulled his gun only after he pulled the trigger. Mehserle testified that Grant was also surprised, and yelled out, “You shot me!”
The jury convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter, a lesser offense. On November 5, 2010, he was sentenced to two years in prison. Further riots erupted following Mehserle’s sentencing, as community members complained it was too lenient. With credit for time served, Mehserle was released in June 2011.
November 15th, 2010
Former Police Officer Gets Six Months in Jail for 1965 Murder of Civil Rights Activist in Alabama
In May 2007, former Alabama state trooper James Bonard Fowler was charged with the 1965 murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old African American veteran, activist, and father. On the night of February 18, 1965, Fowler and dozens of other armed state troopers attacked a peaceful civil rights demonstration in Marion, Alabama. Jackson was participating in the protest and had sought refuge from the police violence in a nearby café with family members when Fowler entered and shot Jackson multiple times as he tried to protect his loved ones. In September 1965, a grand jury declined to indict Fowler for the killing.
District Attorney Michael Jackson reopened the case against Fowler after he confessed in a 2004 interview with The Anniston Star that he had shot Jackson three times in self defense. Though charged with murder, on November 15, 2010, Fowler pleaded guilty to misdemeanor manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in jail and six months probation. During the hearing, Fowler maintained he had acted in self defense but offered an apology to Jackson’s family. Fowler was released in April 2011 after serving only five months.
June 2nd, 2011
Alabama Passes Anti-Immigrant Legislation Authorizing Racial Profiling
On June 2, 2011, Alabama's Republican-controlled state legislature passed House Bill (HB) 56, a controversial anti-immigration bill much tougher than a similar Arizona law passed the year before. One week later, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed the bill into law. Like Arizona's Senate Bill 1070, Alabama's immigration law authorizes police officers, relying on racial profiling, to check the immigration status of anyone detained or arrested who they believe may be in the country illegally. HB 56 also bans undocumented immigrants from enrolling in any public college or university, mandates that parents reveal the immigration status of any child attending public school, and requires school districts to report the number of undocumented students to the state board of education.
Civil rights organizations and religious groups mounted legal and political opposition to HB 56. Many complained the law prohibited acts of charity by criminalizing those who rent property or provide transportation to an undocumented immigrant with prior knowledge of that person's immigration status. Opponents also feared the law would discourage school attendance by undocumented children and create a discriminatory school atmosphere. Indeed, in May 2012, the Department of Justice announced that HB 56 had "diminished access to and quality of education for many of Alabama's Hispanic children" and found that more than 13% of Hispanic children had dropped out of school since the previous fall. Subsequent legal challenges succeeded in invalidating portions of the law.
June 4th, 2011
United States Census Bureau: Over 1 in 4 Black and Latino Americans Living in Poverty
The United States Census Bureau calculates national poverty levels by using a threshold income value set according to family size and composition. In 2010, a family of five earning a combined annual income below $26,675 qualified as "impoverished." On June 4, 2011, the United States Census Bureau released data collected in the 2010 census which showed 46.2 million Americans living in poverty - the largest number recorded since poverty estimates were first collected in 1959. The 2010 poverty rate of 15.1% was the highest recorded in America since 1993.
The census data further revealed that poverty rates differed greatly by ethnic group, with 27.47% of African Americans and 26.6% of Latino Americans living in poverty compared to 9.9% of whites and 12.1% of Asian Americans. Other indicia of economic and social well-being also demonstrated racial differences. For example, census figures showed that 18.1% of Asian Americans, 20.5% of African Americans, and 30.7% of Latino Americans lacked health insurance in 2010 compared to 11.7% of whites and 16.3% of the nation overall.
June 26th, 2011
James Craig Anderson Beaten, Run Over in Jackson, Mississippi, Hate Crime
On June 26, 2011, James Craig Anderson, a forty-seven-year-old African American man, was beaten and run over by a group of seven white men and women in Jackson, Mississippi. The group of young people, who lived fifteen miles away in predominantly-white Rankin County, regularly drove to Jackson where more than a third of the population is African American, to harass people of color in the community by throwing bottles and other objects at them. The group would often pick on the homeless or people they thought were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, thinking them less likely to report the assaults to police.
The night before Anderson's death, the group of white youth had been drinking at a party when they decided to drive to Jackson to assault African American residents. While driving, they spotted Anderson standing outside of his car in the parking lot of a motel and chose him as a target. After the group beat Anderson, Deryl Dedmon, a white teen in the group, reversed his Ford F-250 truck and struck Anderson with it, knocking him to the curb. Dedmon then drove off, leaving Anderson to die. Witnesses later told police that they heard someone yell “white power,” and Dedmon later used a racial slur when bragging about the event.
Police investigating Anderson’s death soon obtained the motel security footage, which depicted the group attacking Anderson and Dedmon's truck running him over. Prosecutors charged Dedmon with capital murder, but Anderson's family asked for the state not to seek the death penalty in a public letter. “We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites,” the famil wrote. “Executing James’s killers will not help to balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment.” Dedmon was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences.
Ten other people were indicted on federal hate crime charges; six of them pled guilty and the other four have trials set for fall 2014. Anderson's family has also filed a wrongful death suit against the young people involved in his death.
September 21st, 2011
Troy Davis Executed in Georgia Despite Evidence of Innocence
On September 21, 2011, the State of Georgia executed Troy Davis despite evidence of his innocence. Davis, a black man, was sentenced to death in the 1989 fatal shooting of white off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. Supporters of Davis, including the NAACP, Amnesty International, former President Jimmy Carter, and Pope Benedict XVI, had been encouraged by a 2009 United States Supreme Court ruling permitting him to present evidence of his innocence in court, but when the federal trial judge denied relief, the Court refused to review the case and an execution date was set.
Georgia's Board of Pardons and Paroles, not the governor, has exclusive authority to grant clemency. Two days before Davis’s scheduled execution, the board held a full clemency hearing, where it heard from Davis's attorneys and supporters, prosecutors, and the victim's family. By that time, seven of the prosecution's nine key witnesses against Davis had either recanted or backed off their trial testimony and others had come forward to give sworn statements that the State's main witness had himself confessed to the shooting.
The evidence undercutting Davis’s guilt was so compelling that three jurors who sentenced him to death at his 1991 trial urged the board to stop the execution. In addition, more than 600,000 people worldwide signed petitions urging the board to commute Davis's sentence, citing concerns that executing a man amid so much uncertainty about his guilt would deeply undermine the public's confidence in the justice system. The board denied clemency on September 20, 2011. In his final words, Davis professed his innocence, expressed condolences to Officer MacPhail’s family, and expressed appreciation to his family and supporters. He was executed by lethal injection on September 21, 2011, and pronounced dead at 11:08 p.m.
September 26th, 2011
Alabama Pastor Becomes First Arrested Under State's Anti-Immigrant Law
On September 26, 2011, Pastor Manuel Hernández was pulled over by an undercover detective in a rural area near Warrior, Alabama, and became the first person arrested under Alabama’s new anti-immigration law, just hours after a federal judge upheld the law’s key passages.
Pastor Hernández, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, worked at the Prayer Center for All Nations in Anniston, Alabama. When the detective asked to see his identification, Hernàndez provided his Mexican passport and Mexican Consular ID card, as well as a card issued by the American Association of Chaplains. The detective questioned the validity of these documents and accused Hernàndez of committing a felony by carrying the chaplain card because it had the state seal on it but was an unofficial form of identification.
Though the detective claimed to have pulled Pastor Hernández over for excessive speeding, he never issued a ticket. Hernández was arrested under suspicion of being an undocumented immigrant and spent several days in jail, where he felt discriminated against as a Latino. Hernández said officials refused to give him a Spanish language Bible and, thinking he could not speak English, said in his presence, “He is an illegal and should be treated as an illegal.” After a few days of incarceration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials released Pastor Hernández with orders to return to immigration court at a later date.
February 26th, 2012
The Murder of Trayvon Martin
On the rainy evening of February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a black boy, was fatally shot in a gated residential community in Sanford, Florida, while walking home from a nearby convenience store. George Zimmerman, a local resident and neighborhood watch coordinator, saw Trayvon and decided the black youth in a hooded sweatshirt was "suspicious." Zimmerman called 911 to report Trayvon's presence while following him at a close distance and, despite the dispatcher's contrary instructions, confronted the teen and fatally shot him. The teen was carrying only iced tea and a bag of Skittles.
Police questioned Zimmerman and, based on Florida's "Stand Your Ground Law," which permits the use of deadly force even in avoidable confrontations, they released him with no charges. Trayvon's unidentified body went to the morgue and his family learned his fate the next morning only after they reported him missing.
Outraged by the lack of police response, Trayvon's parents worked with advocates to publicize their son's murder. The story sparked national and international outrage, symbolizing for many the continuing danger of being a young black male in America. On March 21, 2012, hundreds participated in a "Million Hoodie March" in New York City, calling for prosecutors to file criminal charges against Zimmerman. President Barack Obama called for a complete investigation and reflected, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."
On April 11, 2012, George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. Trial is set to begin in June 2013.
April 20th, 2012
First Challenge Under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act Proves Racial Bias
On April 20, 2012, Cumberland County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks issued the first decision under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act, ruling that racial bias had played a role in Marcus Robinson's 1991 trial and commuting Mr. Robinson's death sentence to life imprisonment without parole.
Marcus Robinson, an African American man who was eighteen at the time of the crime, was sentenced to death in Cumberland County for the murder of a white person. North Carolina's Racial Justice Act (RJA), which was narrowly adopted in 2009, authorized relief for death row defendants who could prove that race was a "significant factor" in jury selection, prosecutorial charging decisions, or the imposition of the death penalty. The RJA authorized defendants to bring claims based on evidence of discrimination at the statewide, judicial division, or district/county level.
According to a Michigan State University Law School study, during the time period Mr. Robinson was tried, North Carolina prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove blacks from capital juries more than twice as often as they did whites, and that disparity was even more pronounced in Cumberland County. At Mr. Robinson's trial, prosecutors removed only 15% of white prospective jurors, compared to 50% of the qualified African American jurors. At an evidentiary hearing on the RJA challenge, EJI Director Bryan Stevenson testified regarding the history and broader context of racial discrimination in jury selection. Following the decision, prosecutors immediately made plans to appeal and the state legislature passed measures that weakened the RJA.
May 16th, 2012
North Carolina Attempts to Compensate Eugenics Victims
On May 16, 2012, the North Carolina legislature considered a bill recommending compensation for victims of the state's forced sterilization program. Beginning in 1933, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina oversaw approximately 7600 forced sterilizations. In contrast with other eugenics programs in the United States, North Carolina's board enabled county departments of public welfare to petition for sterilization of their clients, including some girls as young as ten. According to board records, approximately 71% of sterilized women were said to be "feeble-minded." Distinct from the "mental disease" category, the so-called "feeble minded" included many women of color, poor women, and women from large families. Approximately 60% of the women sterilized against their will in North Carolina were African American.
In 1977, the North Carolina General Assembly repealed the laws authorizing the board's existence and ended the active sterilization program, but the involuntary sterilization laws that underpinned the board's operations were not repealed until 2003.
Twenty-five years after the sterilizations stopped, North Carolina Governor Michael Easley issued a formal apology to the victims in December 2002. In June 2012, however, the North Carolina Senate refused to support the compensation measure proposed by the House in May 2012 that set aside $10 million ($50,000 per victim) for compensation. The measure would have made North Carolina the first state to compensate eugenics victims.
July 12th, 2012
Report Reveals One in Thirteen African Americans of Voting Age Is Disenfranchised
Felon disenfranchisement laws prohibit otherwise eligible citizens from voting because they have been convicted of a felony. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia disenfranchise people while they are in prison, on probation, or on parole, and eleven states continue to disenfranchise people even after they have completed their sentences.
On July 12, 2012, The Sentencing Project reported that felon disenfranchisement laws significantly restrict participation in the democratic process and, exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, significantly reduce the voting power of communities of color. As of December 31, 2010, an estimated 5.85 million Americans were ineligible to vote because of state laws disenfranchising felons. Only about 25 percent of that population was incarcerated in jail or prison; the remaining 75 percent had returned home having successfully completed their sentences or were supervised in their communities by probation or parole. As a result of felon disenfranchisement laws, more than four million Americans live, work, and pay taxes while unable to vote.
Disenfranchisement laws disproportionately restrict communities of color from participating in the political process. One out of every thirteen African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised – more than four times the rate for non-African Americans. In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than 20 percent of the voting-age African American population is barred from voting. Nationwide, nearly one million African Americans remain disenfranchised despite having served their sentences and returned to their communities.
Despite these staggering numbers, felon disenfranchisement has remained almost immune to judicial challenge because courts have ruled that section two of the Fourteenth Amendment, which permits abridging the right to vote “for participation in rebellion or other crime,” explicitly authorizes barring people with felony convictions from voting.
October 24th, 2012
Feds Sue Meridian, Mississippi, Officials for Unlawful Incarceration of Youth
On October 24, 2012, the United States Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Meridian, Mississippi, the Meridian Police Department, the State of Mississippi, and city and state officials. The suit alleged that the city’s practice of incarcerating children for non-criminal violations of school rules constituted a severe violation of the youths’ legal and constitutional rights. Such practices have been shown to increase the likelihood of students’ later incarceration for criminal offenses and are described by some as a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Meridian schools frequently referred students to the Meridian Police Department, which automatically arrested all referred students even without probable cause. Meridian schools often referred students for arrest for minor violations of school rules, including farting in class and violating the school dress code by wearing the wrong color socks. Students arrested in school typically were provided no meaningful legal representation, questioned without being advised of their Miranda rights, and incarcerated for days without a hearing.
The federal investigation that preceded filing of the civil suit concluded that Meridian’s school-to-prison pipeline had a severe and disparate impact on students of color and disabled students. Between 2006 and 2009, all students arrested in Meridian schools were black and disabled students were seven times more likely to be expelled than non-disabled students.
In March 2013, the Justice Department settled a related school desegregation lawsuit against the Meridian Public School District with a consent decree that limits the use of law enforcement in school discipline. The 2012 case remains pending.
February 27th, 2013
United States Supreme Court Hears Argument in Shelby County v. Holder
Despite adoption in 1870 of the Fifteenth Amendment barring racial discrimination in voting, Southern states and others used poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence to deny African Americans the right to vote for another century.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”) requires jurisdictions with the worst records of discrimination to obtain “preclearance” from the federal government before changing voting laws.
On February 27, 2013, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, in which Alabama officials argued that preclearance was no longer constitutional or necessary. On June 25, 2013, in a 5-4 decision, the Court agreed with Alabama and struck down the section of the VRA that determines which jurisdictions are covered by the preclearance requirement – effectively gutting the law. Chief Justice Roberts reasoned for the majority that “things have changed dramatically” since 1965 – voting tests are illegal, racial disparities in voter turnout and registration have diminished, and people of color hold elected office “in record numbers.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in dissent that covered jurisdictions continue to propose voting law changes that are rejected under the VRA, “auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the preclearance remedy eliminated.”
The decision drastically reduces the VRA’s power to combat “second-generation barriers” to voting, like racial gerrymandering, which reduce the impact of minority votes. “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” wrote Justice Ginsburg. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA's success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed. With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.”
April 24th, 2013
Alabama Man Sentenced to Jail for Consensual Homosexual Sex
On April 24, 2013, a Dallas County, Alabama, trial judge sentenced DeWayne Williams to one year incarceration for violating a state law that criminalizes certain types of consensual sex between unmarried partners. Mr. Williams had originally been charged with 1st degree Sodomy, but the State’s evidence at trial - including the alleged victim’s testimony - failed to establish or even allege that the sexual encounter between the two men had been forced. Rather than drop the charges altogether, the prosecutors urged the trial judge to instruct the jury to also consider whether Mr. Williams had violated the state’s sexual misconduct statute.
Alabama’s sexual misconduct statute prohibits “deviate sexual behavior,”and defines such acts as “any act of sexual gratification between persons not married to each other involving the sex organs of one person and the mouth or anus of another.” Passed in 1977, the law was intended to criminalize same sex relations regardless of the role of consent; in addition, because same sex marriage remains illegal and unrecognized in Alabama, the law effectively criminalizes all same-sex relations regardless of marital status.
At trial, the jury acquitted Mr. Williams of the sodomy charge but convicted him of sexual misconduct, concluding that the evidence did establish sexual contact between Mr. Williams and another man. Mr. Williams was sentenced to twelve months in Dallas County jail and a subsequent two year period of supervised probation along with requirements to pay a $100 fine and the cost of his court-appointed attorney. For his act of engaging in private, consensual sex with another man, Mr. Williams was also required to register as a sex offender.
Throughout his trial and on appeal, Mr. Williams objected that the state sexual misconduct statute could not be enforced against him because it was unconstitutional under the United Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas. In that case, the Court had held that any laws prohibiting consensual sex between same sex individuals violated their Fourteenth Amendment right to “engage in the private conduct in the exercise of their liberty under the Due Process Clause.”
On June 14, 2014, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Mr. Williams and reversed his conviction and sentence, holding that the sexual misconduct statute is unconstitutional and unenforceable. The court’s decision also held that the State of Alabama could not re-try Mr. Williams without violating double jeopardy protections, since he had been acquitted of sodomy at the first trial. Though the decision enforced national law that had been established more than a decade before, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange publicly denounced the decision as one that “leaves all Alabamians less protected from nonconsensual sex.” Sodomy, rape, and other sexual offenses remain illegal in the state.
May 24th, 2013
Federal Court Rules Racial Profiling in Arizona Violated Latinos’ Constitutional Rights
On May 24, 2013, Judge G. Murray Snow of the United States District Court for the District of Arizona ruled that the Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), led by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution by conducting raids and traffic stops that targeted Latinos based on race.
Statistical studies indicated that MCSO officers were between four and nine times more likely to stop a Latino driver than a similar non-Latino driver. In addition, though the MCSO’s authority to enforce federal immigration law was revoked in 2009, the office continued to conduct immigration-related raids and traffic stops for four years afterward, in violation of federal law and the Constitution. A law enforcement expert at the Department of Justice described the MCSO’s actions as the worst example of racial profiling that he had encountered.
Evidence in the case indicated that the observed racial disparities were motivated by anti-Latino bias at the highest levels of MCSO leadership. The office’s written policies encouraged the use of race as a factor in determining whether to conduct a traffic stop, and emails recovered from the accounts of high-level MCSO officials revealed they repeatedly expressed anti-Latino sentiment and shared racist images and jokes.
Further litigation in the case is pending. The MCSO appealed the district court’s ruling and negotiations regarding possible remedies, including an independent monitor of MCSO policies and practices, are ongoing.
June 5th, 2013
North Carolina Legislature Votes to Repeal the Racial Justice Act
On June 5, 2013, the North Carolina legislature voted to overturn the Racial Justice Act, an historic law that prohibited the use of race in the imposition of the death penalty.
Passed in 2009, the Racial Justice Act (RJA) required courts to vacate a death sentence where race was a factor in the imposition of the death penalty. North Carolina was the first state to pass legislation aimed at remedying racially discriminatory practices in death penalty trials, including racial bias in jury selection.
Prosecutors vigorously opposed the law and successfully lobbied the legislature to vote for a repeal of the statute in 2011 but Governor Bev Perdue vetoed the repeal. In April 2012, Cumberland County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks vacated Marcus Robinson's death sentence based on evidence that North Carolina prosecutors intentionally discriminated against African Americans in selecting capital juries. The groundbreaking ruling came after the state's first evidentiary hearing under the RJA.
In June 2012, North Carolina's Republican-led state legislature amended the RJA to weaken its protections by barring defendants from relying on statistical evidence of racial discrimination; the amendment requires a defendant to demonstrate that prosecutors intentionally used racial discrimination in his or her particular case. This made claims much more difficult to win. Nevertheless, in December 2012, the death sentences of Christina Walters, Quintel Augustine, and Tilmon Golphin, were overturned under the RJA after they proved that prosecutors had blocked African Americans from jury service because of their race.
On June 5, 2013, the legislature voted again to repeal the RJA. Two weeks later, Governor Pat McCrory – a Republican who was inaugurated in January 2013 – signed the repeal bill. Governor McCrory predicted that eliminating the RJA would remove the “procedural roadblocks” that had kept North Carolina from executing anyone since 2006. There are 152 people on North Carolina’s death row and nearly all of them filed motions under the RJA; many of those motions remain pending as courts consider whether they may proceed in light of the repeal.
June 26th, 2013
Texas Executes 500th Person Since 1982
On June 26, 2013, fifty-two-year-old Kimberly McCarthy became the 500th person executed by the State of Texas since 1982. Ms. McCarthy, a black woman, was charged with robbing, beating, and fatally stabbing a retired professor near Dallas in 1997. She was sentenced to death despite evidence that racial bias played a significant role in the case and was put to death by lethal injection.
The Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia struck down death penalty statutes across the country, including Texas's statute. The five-member majority ruled that the administration of capital punishment was arbitrary in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Justice Potter Stewart compared the random nature of death sentences to being “struck by lightning.” Under the Furman decision, the sentences of all death row prisoners throughout the country were commuted to life imprisonment.
Soon after, thirty-five states set out to create constitutionally-sound death penalty laws, using Furman as a guideline. The resulting statute adopted in Georgia was reviewed by the Supreme Court in the 1976 case of Gregg v. Georgia. The Court affirmed that the new procedures met constitutional requirements and authorized states to re-institute the death penalty. Prior to Gregg, no industrial democracy had ever reinstated the death penalty after taking steps to abolish it.
Texas resumed executions six years later, administering the state’s first lethal injection to Charles Brooks Jr. on December 7, 1982. More than 1366 people have been executed in the United States since the Furman moratorium was lifted in 1976 and more than a third of those executions have been carried out in Texas.
July 7th, 2013
Report Reveals California Illegally Sterilized Women Prisoners
On July 7, 2013, California’s Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that 148 women incarcerated in the California state prison system had been involuntarily sterilized via tubal ligation between 2006 and 2010. Some estimates indicate that 100 additional women were sterilized during the late 1990s and 2000s. Former prisoners report that prison doctors repeatedly pressured pregnant women to consent to sterilization. One doctor asked a pregnant prisoner to consent to sterilization while she was sedated for a caesarian section.
The sterilizations occurred in violation of Federal and California laws placing strong restrictions on the sterilization of incarcerated people because of the danger that a sterilization may be performed without informed consent. California law prohibits sterilization of incarcerated people without approval from the prison system’s central administration but the required approval was not sought in these cases. In addition, federal law prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for the sterilization of prisoners and prohibits doctors from pressuring pregnant women to consent to sterilization during labor or childbirth.
The report is evocative of historic coerced and forced sterilization in California and across America. In California alone, 20,000 people, mostly poor, disabled, mentally ill, members of minority groups, or prisoners, were forcibly sterilized between 1909 and 1964. California was not alone in this practice. Thirty-two states had laws that required sterilization of people belonging to certain groups. The United States Supreme Court upheld the practice as constitutional in its 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell.
August 12th, 2013
Federal Court Rules NYPD “Stop and Frisk” Policy Unconstitutional
Under the New York City Police Department’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy, police routinely stop and patdown individuals on city streets, checking for weapons or evidence of criminality. Between 2004 and 2009, the department conducted 2.8 million such stops. In place for decades, “stop and frisk” has received strong support from the NYPD leadership and many of the city’s elected officials, while activists and civil rights lawyers have decried the practice as racist and unconstitutional.
Plaintiffs sued in federal court, asserting the policy is illegal and unconstitutional, and a two-month-long trial was held in spring 2013. Evidence presented in federal court showed significant racial disparities in the implementation of “stop-and-frisk” and demonstrated a strong likelihood that many stops carried out under the policy violated the Constitution. Though black and Latino people make up 52 percent of New York City’s population, they constituted 85 percent of those stopped under the policy between 2004 and 2009. Data indicated that a neighborhood’s racial composition was a stronger predictor of its rate of “stop and frisk” activity than was than its crime rate.
Evidence also indicated that stops rarely led to discovery of criminal activity. Only 12 percent of stops resulted in an arrest or a summons, a rate lower than the rate of arrest or summons from random checkpoints. In order to comply with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, police officers must be able to articulate reasonable suspicion of criminality to justify a stop and frisk of an individual. Such a low rate of arrests and summons suggests that officers were making stops without reasonable suspicion. In addition, a review of police department records indicated that, between 2004 and 2009, approximately 170,000 indisputably illegal stops were performed.
On August 12, 2013, United States District Court Judge Schira Scheindlin ruled against the NYPD and declared the “stop and frisk” program unconstitutional. The court ordered the department to reform its practices. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD leaders expressed their continued support for the program and say they intended to appeal the ruling.
December 20th, 2013
Alabama Federal Court Upholds Republican Redistricting Plan that Reduces Black Voting Power
On December 20, 2013, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama ruled against the Alabama Democratic Conference and the Alabama Black Legislative Caucus, upholding the state legislature’s controversial redistricting plan. In Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama, plaintiffs argued that the Republican-led redistricting process, the decennial task of reorganizing legislative district lines to comply with U.S. Census data, constituted racial gerrymandering by packing black voters into already majority-black districts. This makes it harder to elect Democrats outside of the overly-majority black districts, diluting black voting power in the state.
After Republicans gained control of the Alabama legislature in 2010, their party became the main organizer of the redistricting efforts. The resulting proposal called for the number of majority-black districts to increase to twenty-eight in the House, and to eight in the Senate, while the number of majority-white districts in which black residents represent over 25 percent of the population decreased from eleven to six. This decrease reduced the number of districts where black residents have significant influence at the state level, making it more difficult to get bills from majority-black districts approved in Montgomery.
In his dissenting opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson lamented the redistricting plan’s effect and intent in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby Co. v. Holder, which ruled Section 4(b) of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. “Even as it was asking the Supreme Court to strike down” Section 5 (of the Voting Rights Act) “for failure to speak to current conditions,” Judge Thompson wrote, “the State of Alabama was relying on racial quotas with absolutely no evidence that they had anything to do with current conditions, and seeking to justify those quotas with the very provision it was helping to render inert.”
On June 2, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would review the case in its fall 2014 term, and on March 25, 2015, the Court in a 5-4 decision vacated the lower court's ruling, siding with black and Democratic lawmakers who said the state legislature relied too heavily on race in its redistricting plan.
April 20th, 2014
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Wrongfully Imprisoned for Nearly 20 Years, Dead at 76
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an African American middleweight boxer who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1967 and served nearly twenty years in prison before being exonerated, died on April 20, 2014, in Toronto, Canada, after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 76.
Carter began his professional boxing career in 1961 and consistently ranked as one of the top ten middleweight boxers in the country. He vied for the championship in December 1965, losing to the reigning champion Joey Giardello.
In 1966, Carter and a friend, John Artis, were arrested for a triple murder at a New Jersey bar. Two of the victims died at the scene, one later died at a hospital, and a fourth man survived the shooting. Carter and Artis were taken to the hospital but the two survivors did not identify them. Carter and Artis had credible alibis and the ballistics report from the scene of the crime did not match the weapon registered to Carter. However, Alfred Bello and Arthur Bradley – two men who were breaking into a nearby factory at the time of the shooting – claimed Carter and Artis were the Black men they’d seen leaving the bar with weapons. Both Carter and Artis were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Multiple appeals followed, and Bello and Bradley later recanted their statements, revealing that prosecutors had offered them protection and assistance with pending criminal charges in exchange for their testimony.
In 1985, after Carter spent nearly 20 years in prison, Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled that Carter had not received a fair trial and set aside the conviction, commenting that the prosecution had appealed to “racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” In 1988, after prosecutors declined to seek a third trial and filed a motion to dismiss the charges, a Superior Court judge dropped all charges against Carter (and Artis). Carter later relocated to Toronto, Canada, where he served as the executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.
July 14th, 2014
Federal Court Rules Texas Must Issue Confederate Flag License Plate
In a 2-1 decision released on July 14, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Texas violated the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ (SCV) First Amendment rights when it rejected its application for a group license plate in 2011. “By rejecting the plate because it was offensive, the board discriminated against Texas SCV's view that the Confederate flag is a symbol of sacrifice, independence, and Southern heritage,” the majority wrote.
The propose plate features the group's logo, a Confederate battle flag framed on four sides by the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.” A faint image of the Confederate flag also serves as the plate’s background.
More than a generation after the Civil War, Southern whites began asserting their social and cultural dominance by embracing a revisionist history that portrayed the Civil War as a conflict in which the Confederate cause was heroic, honorable, and deserving of tribute. The conflict was recast as one unrelated to the institution of slavery, and the lesson of the Civil War as well as the suffering of generations of enslaved black people was lost. This myth ignored the true brutality of that time period and distorted our national memory of the intermingled links between American slavery, the Civil War, and race.
Invocation of Confederate pride and identity accompanied white resistance to civil rights and racial equality during and following Reconstruction, at the height of the civil rights movement, and well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
In response to the Fifth Circuit ruling, NAACP Texas State Conference president Gary Bledsoe said the flag “marginalizes American citizens and permits people to remind us daily that we were slaves and ancestors of the plate bearers owned our ancestors.” Nine other states, including Alabama, authorize license plates featuring images of the Confederate flag, all designed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
August 5th, 2014
Black Workers Sue Memphis Cotton Gin for Racial Discrimination
In June 2014, after months of racial discrimination, harassment, and threats from a white supervisor, Untonio Harris and Marrio Mangrum, two African American workers at the Atkinson Cotton Warehouse, filed a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in June 2014. The supervisor of the Memphis, Tennessee cotton gin refused them permission to drink from a “whites only” water fountain, referred to them using racial slurs, and even threatened them with hanging.
The discrimination occurred daily. African American employees were called “monkeys” and told "you need to think like a white man." The supervisor would yell: “Hey, black boy, get over there and get my cotton.” Mr. Harris even recalls that the supervisor "pulled his pants down in front of us and told us to kiss his white tail."
Mr. Harris used his cell phone to record the racist comments. When Mr. Harris asked to use a microwave the supervisor told him he couldn’t, “because you are not white.” The supervisor, in reference to a water fountain said: “I need to put a sign here that says ‘white people only’.” When Mr. Harris asked what would happen if he drank from the fountain, the supervisor replied: “That’s when we hang you.”
The discrimination faced by the employees is a reminder of the not so distant legacy of the Jim Crow era. In the recording, the supervisor recalls the days of segregation favorably. “Back then, nobody thought anything about it. Now everybody is made to where to think it’s bad,” says the supervisor.
After the reports of discrimination became public, the owner of the warehouse claimed no knowledge of the abuse and stated that warehouse management outsourced to another company. The management company, Federal Compress, has since stated that the supervisor is no longer employed with them.
However, on August 5, 2014, Harris, Mangrum and a third employee named Vashone Ford filed a federal lawsuit against the warehouse owners, seeking anti-discrimination training for all employees and future monitoring of the business environment. All three men were fired in early 2014 after reporting the racist conditions to their supervisors.