They removed all the black folks from the pool of potential jurors.
In the trial of a black man convicted of killing two white folks.
Not in 1950 ... but in 2002.
Prosecutors systematically removed all the black jurors from the jury pool of 3,000 citizens. And by “systematically,” I mean they wrote the letter “B” beside the names of potential jurors, and then seated an all-white jury. It doesn’t get much more overt than that. After ensuring that more than 30 black juror-prospects did not make it onto the final jury panel, prosecutors managed to ensure that Terry Edwards would have an all-white jury when he faced the death penalty in Texas. And of course, the death penalty is what he got.
When it comes to race in America, the prison system – and the death penalty in particular – shows us how little has changed in the past century. Our system of criminal justice is one of the social institutions that has been the least affected by the civil rights movement.
In the 1950s, as we began to transition from lynchings to state-sanctioned executions, African Americans were 22 percent of the population in the U.S. but made up 75 percent of executions. Now, nearly 70 years later, African Americans are 13 percent of the population but still account for over a third of executions and nearly half (43 percent) of death row .
Where lynchings happened 100 years ago is where executions happen today – in states like Texas. And the states that continued to hang on to slavery the longest are the same states still holding on to the death penalty – states like Texas.
Texas alone accounts for roughly half of the executions in the country. During sentencing, one of the things argued in Texas courts is the “future dangerousness” of the defendant. It’s a nebulous idea for sure, but even more nebulous considering the unhealed wounds of our racial past.
In the case of Duane Buck, another Texas man currently fighting to stop his execution, data was allowed into the court as evidence that suggested that black folks are more likely to be dangerous than white folks. The New York Times featured Buck’s case in an article “Condemned to Die Because He’s Black.” Mr. Buck’s case is still before the Supreme Court.
Now back to Mr. Edwards – whose final hours are ticking away, and whose case may not even make it to the Supreme Court. In addition to striking dozens of potential black jurors from his jury, the prosecution presented an array of bad forensic tests, and withheld all sorts of other evidence.
This isn’t an isolated incident. The prosecutor in this case has been responsible for other wrongful convictions, including three folks who have now been exonerated.
What’s especially troubling and consistent with other cases is the lethal duo of prosecutor, Thomas D’Amore, and forensic technician Vicki Hall. These two teamed up on another trial of a man I’ve had the privilege to meet.
His name is Richard Miles. In 1995, D’Amore and Hall provided gunshot residue “evidence” that is eerily similar to the case of Mr. Edwards. Nearly 20 years later, Richard Miles was exonerated and freed (in 2012). Now he’s the Founder of Miles of Freedom working for reform in the prison system. Here’s what Mr. Miles has to say:
“I was 19 years old when I was arrested for murder. I’m 41 now. I have never shot a gun a day in my life. But that didn’t matter. All the jury needed to hear was ‘His hands came back dirty.’ The prosecutor, Thomas D’Amore, and the forensic technician, Vicki Hall, put on false gunshot residue testimony. Now it looks like this same prosecutor and this same forensic technician are saying the same thing about Terry Edwards. It looks like the same set up.”
I do not know what happened on July 8, 2002 that took the lives of two precious people – Tommy Walker and Mickell Goodwin. My heart goes out to their families and to all the victims of violence. I don’t know what happened that night. But I do know that Terry Edwards did not get a fair trial, and he deserves one.
Inscribed on the Supreme Court are the words: “Equal Justice Under the Law.” The case of Terry Edwards is a poignant reminder that this vision is still a noble aspiration, though far from being fully realized. Too often, the best predictor of who gets executed in America is not the atrocity of the crime but far more arbitrary things like where the crime was committed, the race of the victim, and the resources of the defendant. I also know that there is a way to honor the victims of violence without more violence.
The death penalty needs to be remembered in the same way we remember lynching – with horror and with shame, and with a renewed passion to end all violence.
A generation from now I believe our grandchildren will look back at the death penalty in a similar way that we look back at slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching … They will shake their heads in bewilderment and say: “How did my grandparents ever think that was OK?” Even in Texas.