Racism in the Courts – How Far Have We Come?

How far have we really come in stamping out racism in our court system?  We have certainly made progress since Scott v. Sandford, where our country’s Supreme Court held that Americans of African descent were property of white Americans, they were not citizens, and therefore they did not have standing to sue in American courts even after being taken to a state that did not recognize slavery.  Or Plessy v. Ferguson, where our Supreme Court upheld racial segregation laws and declared that “separate but equal” was the law of the land.  Are we there yet?

I’m going to boldly make the observation that the court system is not racist.  People who work in the court system are racist, and how far we have come is not a measure of equality in our court system but rather it is a measure of how many decision makers who work in our legislatures, executive positions, and our court system are racist and to what degree their racist views impact the people caught up in our court system, whether they are seeking relief from oppression through the courts or being oppressed by the courts.

State v. Bennett

Johnny Bennett is a black man who was convicted of a horrible murder and then sentenced to death in South Carolina state court.  Bennett was sentenced to death, but the death sentence was overturned by the S.C. Supreme Court because a juror was allowed on the jury despite having stated that he would go along with the majority if he had doubts about whether the defendant should receive the death penalty.  The case was sent back to Lexington County for a second penalty phase to decide whether Bennett should receive the death penalty.

At the retrial, Bennett’s fate was decided by an all white jury – both Bennett and the victim in his case were black.  During the retrial, a white witness testified that Bennett had attacked him previously, unrelated to the current case, and that he was in a coma for two weeks following the altercation.  While in a coma, the witness testified that he dreamed about black Indians chasing him and trying to kill him.  The defense objected and argued that the solicitor, Donnie Meyers, was purposefully trying to inflame the all white jury with repeated racial references.  During the first trial, when there were black jurors present, Meyers did not reference race at all.  But during the retrial, with an all white jury, Meyers repeatedly made inflammatory references to Bennett’s race.

Meyers called a witness who testified as to a sexual relationship that Bennett had with a female guard, and made a point of saying that the guard was blonde.  Again the defense objected and moved for a mistrial, which was denied.  The judge agreed with Meyers that it was not a racial reference and that being blonde doesn’t necessarily mean a person is white.  During closing argument, Meyers referred to Bennett as King Kong, a monster, a cave man, and a beast of burden.  The Court again denied the defense’s motions for mistrial, finding that the comments “did not infect the trial with unfairness, did not prejudice the Defendant, and was not a denial of due process or fundamental fairness.”

South Carolina Supreme Court

The S.C. Supreme Court subsequently affirmed Bennett’s death sentence, finding that Meyers’ “alleged inappropriate remarks” were not inflammatory and did not prejudice the defendant.  In doing so, they gave a green light to South Carolina prosecutors to make these types of arguments to jurors when there is a black defendant and an all white jury.

Bennett then filed a post conviction relief (PCR) action.  In the investigation leading up to the PCR hearing, PCR counsel asked one of the jurors why they had voted to convict Bennett, and the juror’s response was “because he was just a dumb nigger.”  At the PCR hearing, the juror admitted that he had made the statement and apologized for it, but did not retract it, stating “that was just the way I felt about it.”  The juror went on to explain that he was not prejudiced and that race had nothing to do with his decision in the case.  The PCR Court held that the juror’s statements did not establish that he was racially biased at the time of the resentencing trial, and did not grant PCR.  The South Carolina Supreme Court then denied cert and refused to even hear Bennett’s appeal from the PCR hearing.

Bennett v. Stirling

In Bennett v. Stirling, in March 2016, the U.S. District Court granted Habeas relief, overturning the death sentence based on the repeated injection of race into the proceedings and the clear appeal to the prejudices of jurors during the resentencing hearing.  In a written order, the Court systematically and with refreshing honesty analyzes each of the racially charged statements made by solicitor Meyers or elicited from witnesses by Meyers, and concludes that, without a doubt, the injection of race into the proceedings was unfair and warranted reversal.

There was no purpose for Meyers to elicit testimony about a witness’ dream of black Indians chasing him other than to invoke racially charged imagery.  The prosecutor carefully choreographed testimony that would alert the jurors that the black defendant had a sexual relationship with a white lover.  The Court notes that if they are to ignore the blonde reference on the basis that some black women dye their hair blonde, “we would have to pretend not to know as judges what we know as men.”

The state courts passed over Meyers’ King Kong reference as “a benign reference to Petitioner’s oversized physique without any racial connotation.”  The District Court points out that to accept this argument, the courts must ignore “the long and ugly history of depicting African-Americans as monkeys and apes, and the pejorative and inflammatory nature of such references.”  The Court points out that referring to an African American as an ape or monkey “is so over the top and inappropriate as to give rise to an employee’s Title VII racially hostile workplace claim,”  and yet the state courts held that it was permissible in imposing the death penalty on a black man.  The Court notes that “few forms of prejudice are so virulent” as when a prosecutor makes an appeal to racial prejudice coupled with sexual misconduct.

The fact that a juror admitted racial bias, even to the point of referring to Bennett as a “dumb nigger,” was separately grounds to reverse the death penalty, and the District Court goes to great lengths to show how the juror’s own testimony clearly established that he was biased at the time of the resentencing hearing.

So, how far have we come?  Obviously we have come a long way since the Dred Scott decision, but is this equality?  I want to applaud the federal judge who issued this Habeas decision and who was not afraid to speak the truth about what he saw in Bennett’s resentencing hearing.  Bennett will not be released – these proceedings only relate to the sentencing proceedings.  He may still get the death penalty; I don’t know the status of the case currently.  But can we just ask the question – wouldn’t he have been convicted and gotten the death penalty without the appeals to prejudice?  If it is not necessary to cheat or to appeal to racial prejudice while prosecuting crimes, why are some prosecutors still doing it?


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