Advocates say cases like these are evidence of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
After receiving a court summons, a college student returned to her hometown in NC’s Columbus County this year to report for jury duty on a murder trial. But after questioning, the prosecutor removed her from the jury pool because she said she supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
According to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focusing on the US criminal justice system, the case joins others in California, Minnesota and Nevada in which prosecutors have bumped potential jurors because they expressed sympathy for Black Lives Matter, even though a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the movement has gained mainstream support in the weeks since Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.
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“This is just another instance of the racial biases in the system,” Raleigh BLM organizer Kerwin Pittman told The Raleigh News & Observer Saturday. “And it speaks volumes to the marginalization of individuals in the system.”
The trial was the second appeal from a defendant, Antiwuan Tyrez Campbell, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2017. Judges in the previous two trials ruled that barring Black jurors did not violate the rights of Campbell, a Black man, and the courts upheld his conviction.
Now he is asking for a new trial, The News & Observer reported.
Despite the fact that he has lost twice at the Court of Appeals, Campbell could still go to the NC Supreme Court. His case hinges on the prosecutor’s reasons for removing the prospective Black juror.
The court does not identify the full names of jurors.
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In Campbell’s most recent Columbus county trial, the prosecutors were allowed four peremptory strikes, which allow lawyers to remove potential jurors.
When laws banning Black people from juries were struck down in 1880, prosecutors turned to peremptory challenges then to keep Black people off juries. The US Supreme Court outlawed race-based exclusion from jury duty in their 1986 ruling Batson v. Kennedy. But under Batson, prosecutors are still allowed peremptory challenges. However, they are required to offer credible race-neutral reasons for removing potential jurors from the pool.
Columbus County prosecutors used three of their four peremptory challenges to bump Black people off the jury. But after allegations of racism surfaced, the Columbus County trial judge required the prosecutors to explain why they had blocked those three Black prospective jurors.
One potential juror knew a person who may have been present at the murder, and another knew the mother of a possible witness, prosecutors said.
The Black college student was challenged because she had attended the same school as two people who might be asked to testify, they offered.
But prosecutors had an even more important reason for excluding this young woman from the jury.
According to a ruling released by a panel of three appeals judges, the prosecutors said “when she was describing her political science background and nature as a student, she also was indicating that she was a participant, if not an organizer, for Black Lives Matter at her current college.”
The prosecutor’s arguments illustrate that attorneys have an extremely low bar to clear to remove Black jurors, critics say. It is not difficult to find a race-neutral reason to cover intentional or unintentional discrimination.
Mujtaba Mohammed, a state senator and attorney for the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office in Charlotte, says the rules for removing jurors apply disproportionately to Black people because of broader, systemic racism.
“We have so many qualified jurors being struck willy-nilly,” Mohammed told The News & Observer. “For even reasons like prior contact with law enforcement.”
That means Black jurors can be disqualified if they live in a high crime area or if they’ve ever been pulled over by a traffic cop, Mohammed said.
Campbell is trying to win a new trial. If his efforts pay off, it will be the first time a bias argument based on racially-motivated jury selection has succeeded in NC.
As Cardinal & Pine reported, Black people, and particularly Black men, are disproportionately targeted for traffic stops.
Measures for Justice, which gathers criminal justice data at the county level and makes it available to the public, reported that Black people make up 22% of the state’s population but accounted for 37% of all traffic stops, WRAL reported.
Furthermore, while Black men make up 10% of the state’s population, they account for 22% of traffic stops.
As for other interactions with law enforcement, Black people were convicted of felonies 53% of the time in North Carolina between 2009 and 2013, compared with 49.3% for whites, Measures for Justice reported.