Are Southern Juries Still Racially Rigged?

A lawsuit filed by the Equal Justice Initiative says that certain Alabama juries have been artificially whitened.

Posted: 10/20/2011 09:16 AM EDT
Filed Under racism

Douglas Valeska

Flashback warning: A new lawsuit filed by the Equal Justice Initiative sounds like it may have jumped straight out of the Jim Crow era. The group claims that, for years, Alabama District Attorney Douglas Valeska purposely prohibited qualified African-Americans from serving on juries in serious felony cases, especially those considering the death penalty.

The group has filed suit on behalf of five African-Americans who claim that they were illegally excluded from jury service because of their race. The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, a remedy that asks the judge to formally deem Valeska’s systematic discrimination illegal and force his office to cease the practice. In addition, the plaintiffs are also asking for ongoing federal court monitoring of jury selection in Houston and Henry Counties.

"Mr. Valeska has repeatedly been found to have illegally excluded black people from jury service with peremptory strikes in capital cases, but he continues the practice because most people don't know about it," said Bryan Stevenson, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "The underrepresentation and exclusion of people of color from juries has seriously damaged the credibility and reliability of the criminal justice system. Individual case reversals haven't stopped this illegal practice, so there must be greater accountability."

The Equal Justice Initiative is an organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.

The group contends that, from 2006 to 2010, state prosecutors in Dothan used peremptory strikes to exclude 82% of qualified black jurors in death-penalty cases. As a result, the jury in every death-penalty case in Houston County over this period has been all white or had only a single black juror despite the fact that the circuit is nearly 25% African-American. Equal Justice Initiative has also previously reported that Houston County has the highest per capita death sentencing rate in Alabama.

When asked about the lawsuit, Valeska reportedly brushed off the claims.

"I’m amazed that equal justice can issue press releases and send things out seeking pre-trial publicity before I have even been served,” said Valeska Wednesday, according to local news outlet WFSA 12. “I’m not surprised that they have done this.”


(Photo: Alabama State Govt.)