The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees every person the right to a fair trial. However, if the prosecution is making racist remarks and presenting racially-charged evidence throughout the trial, this right is violated.
This alleged prosecutorial misconduct, such as in the recent case of Jonathan Gentry v. The State of Washington, spurred the ACLU of Washington to submit a friend-of-the-court brief addressing whether racial bias in capital punishment cases “undermines the principle of equal justice.” In late June, the State Supreme Court heard oral argument on Jonathan Lee Gentry’s Personal Restraint Petition (PRP). This proceeding allows inmates, including those on death row, to raise issues that were not covered by the original appeal of a conviction. Gentry’s attorneys, backed by the ACLU’s brief, contend that his conviction and sentence are unfair because they were based on racial bias.
Jonathan Gentry, an African American, was accused of murdering and sexually assaulting a white female. He was tried by an all-white jury and white prosecutors. One of the prosecuting attorneys, C. Danny Clem, made comments that (according to the courts) were “totally inappropriate” and “racially offensive” to Gentry’s defense counsel. At the conclusion of the pre-trial hearing, Clem asked Gentry’s counsel Jeffery Robinson, an African American attorney, “Where did you learn your ethics – in Harlem?”
The racism didn’t end there. The State attempted throughout the trial to depict the victim’s world as exclusively white and argued that the presence of two “negroid” hair fragments found on her body must have belonged to Gentry. This racially framed theory suggests that the presence of any such hair could only be seen as unwelcome and malevolent.
And there was more.
The State elicited the testimony of a white jailhouse informant who referred to playing a “nigger” card game with Gentry. The State then deliberately elicited testimony that the informant had received poor treatment from African Americans, thus further demonizing the defendant.
In the midst of this blatant racism, the jury convicted Gentry and sentenced him to death.
This problem of racial bias is particularly important in capital punishment cases. The ACLU brief cited a 2011 case, State v. Monday, in which the Washington Supreme Court found its previous efforts to deter prosecutorial appeals to racial bias had “proved insufficient” and that the State’s repugnant injection of race into a criminal matter would be judged under a more exacting standard. In light of the Monday case, the ACLU-WA brief urged that the Court should require an automatic reversal of a conviction and death sentence when the prosecutor exhibits racial bias due to the prosecution’s unique power to authorize a death sentence.
A friend-of-the-court brief submitted in a prior case by now-deceased University of Iowa Professor David Baldus said there was statistically significant evidence that Washington prosecutors sought death sentences more than three times as often if one or more of the victims was white. Additionally, all four of Washington’s African American death row inmates were convicted by all-white juries.