Racial Bias


“By reserving the penalty of death for black defendants … or for those convicted of killing white persons, we perpetuate the ugly legacy of slavery – teaching our children that some lives are inherently less precious than others.” -Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, Former President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Over 75% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50% of murder victims generally are white.

A study conducted on capital sentencing in Tennessee from 1981-2000 found that even when other aggravating factors were present (such as multiple victims or multiple felony convictions), defendants with white victims were 3.15 times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants with black victims (ABA’s Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Report, 2007).

Underlying the statistical evidence is the differential treatment of African-Americans at every turn:

  • African Americans make up 44% of Tennessee’s death row population but only 17% of its total population
  • In a 2012 report, the Equal justice Initiative found that Tennessee’s appellate courts have never granted Batson relief in a criminal case. Batson v. Kentucky prohibited the racially biased use of peremptory strikes in jury selection, though the problem remains widespread.

Nearly 135 years after Congress enacted the 1875 Civil Rights Act to eliminate racially discriminatory jury selection, the practice continues, especially in serious criminal and capital cases. The staff of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has looked closely at jury selection procedures in eight southern state, including Tennessee. EJI uncovered shocking evidence of racial discrimination in jury selection in every state, including counties where prosecutors have excluded nearly 80% of African Americans qualified for jury service; majority-black counties where capital defendants nonetheless were tried by all-white juries; and some prosecutors employed by the state and local governments actually have been trained to exclude people on the basis of race and instructed on how to conceal their racial bias.


In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction and sentence of Georgia death row inmate, Timothy Foster, when it was discovered, that during the jury selection process, prosecutors struck all potential African American jurors from service, a practice which is unconstitutional but hard to prove.

Texas death row inmate Duane Buck had his 1995 death sentence reduced to life in prison by Harris County prosecutors after appeals that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. These appeals were based on allegations of racist testimony from an expert witness who claimed that Buck was more likely to be a future danger because he is black.

In a motion filed in Georgia on March 19, 2018, handwritten notes by prosecutors revealed that, during the jury selection process, prospective African-American jurors were referred to as “slow,” “ignorant,” “con artist” and “fat.” Prosecutors also jotted a “B” or an “N” next to African American names on jury lists with the intent to exclude these individuals from jury service in seven death penalty cases against black defendants in the 1970s.