Historic Civil Rights Suit Filed Over Exclusion of African Americans from Jury Service

On October 19, five African Americans filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Alabama for illegally excluding black individuals from serving on death penalty juries in Houston and Henry Counties. The lawsuit claims that from 2006 to 2010, state prosecutors used preemptory strikes to exclude 82 percent of qualified black jurors in death penalty cases in Dothan. That means that the jury in every death penalty case in Houston County over that time period has been either all white or had only one black juror, despite the fact that African Americans make up nearly 25 percent of that circuit.  Houston County has the highest per capita death sentencing rate in Alabama.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, has said that one district attorney in particular, Douglas Valeska, has repeatedly excluded African Americans from jury service and continues to do so.  He argues that “The case reversals haven’t stopped this illegal practice, so there must be greater accountability.”

Last year, the Equal Justice Initiative put out a report that examined illegal racial discrimination in jury selection in eight southern states, including Tennessee.  Appellate courts in each of these states have been forced to recognize problems with their biased jury selection processes, except Tennessee—whose 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), even though over 100 defendants have raised Batson claims on appeal.

Photo courtesy of SFGate

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