In his speech last month commemorating Martin Luther King’s famous oration, Barack Obama spoke of the need for vigilance, for instance, to ensure “the criminal justice system is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.” The previous month he spoke with personal insight about the continuing suspicion about African-American men:
“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”
Obama recommended training to counteract the “history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws”.
As an African-American on death row, Willie Manning is a victim of that history of racial disparities. His jury was ‘stacked’ by the prosecutor, who dismissed several African-Americans for reasons that were not race neutral. The only African-American judge of the Mississippi Supreme Court, Justice King, spoke out against this in his dissent to the Court’s order authorizing execution (see pages 14-19). King, supported by three of the eight other judges, reminded the Court of its obligations to review the entire trial to ensure the jury was not constructed so as to omit African-Americans. Yet the Court’s decision precluded this. There will therefore be no investigation of why the trial prosecutor was allowed systematically to refuse African-American jurors for reasons that were not obstacles for white jurors, and to exclude other black jurors for reasons such as reading magazines aimed at African-Americans.
The trial court had also failed to condemn this racism. After the defense’s fourth objection the court declined to act, promising to allow the defense to ‘develop that motion more fully at your leisure’; yet the very next morning, when the defense made its fifth objection, the trial court found that it had ‘already ruled on this’ (ref: Response to Cross-Appeal and Reply Brief of Petitioner-Appellant, filed 15 Dec 2010).
Sadly, jury stacking is not unusual amongst prosecutors in trials of African-Americans; indeed, there is evidence that in Mississippi prosecutors’ training has included instruction as to how to disguise their ‘striking’ of black jurors (see the Equal Justice Initiative’s paper, Illegal Racial Discrimination: a Continuing Legacy, page 20). Such a practice, with its continued consequences for those convicted, is surely an example of the embedded racist practices that President Obama wants to end.
Racism may have tainted Willie Manning’s 1992 case in other ways: certainly the Oktibbeha branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) thought so when they organised a protest march to support Willie in 1994 (see News Coverage). And recently the FBI and DOJ admitted that an FBI agent had exceeded the limits of science when attributing hair found at the murder scene to an African-American.
If the criminal justice system allows racial prejudice to influence life and death decisions, then surely the system itself needs reform. It is not only the condemned who suffer. As Willie himself says of his own racially motivated jury selection, this
“violates not just his own rights, but the rights of the jurors themselves, casting a long shadow over the integrity of the judicial system of the State of Mississippi.”