Racism and Injustice in Alabama’s Courts

All the self-serving, racist noise purporting to justify ridiculously high bail bonds primarily for black people together with all the surreal political nonsense about “locking people up and throwing away the key” gave me reason to take another look at Alabama’s criminal justice system. Here is just some of the sickening, racist crap I fully expected and quickly found. Lord, please help us!

In 2006, Alabama has 19 appeal court judges, all white, not a single one is black. This state is 28% black, but white voters routinely refused to elect even one African-American to a statewide office. One wonders about some of our black callers who worry that we don’t only want blacks in public offices. On the contrary, whites only elect blacks when they can’t elect a white. Alabama has 42 prosecutors or District Attorneys elected from districts and only one is black. He is Michael Jackson, just elected and headquartered here in Selma. Michael must feel mighty welcome among his white prosecuting colleagues as the only elected black prosecutor in a state whose prison population is 63% black. Lord, please help us!

Now listen to this.

80% of all the people sentenced to death in Alabama were convicted of killing a white person, although 65% of the murder victims in Alabama are black. (Repeat) How racist can one state get? Well, maybe the answer can be found in the fact that in November of 2005, more than a century after Brown v. Board of Education, 51% of Alabama’s white voters refused to remove outrageous language from the state constitution requiring unenforceable racial segregation in the public schools. That is about as low as a state can sink!

And as black people might expect, Alabama, per capita, has a larger number of people sentenced to death than any other state in the Union and that includes the death states of both Texas and Mississippi. 41 white prosecutors in Alabama achieved that racist result by systematically striking black jurors off the jury list. The prosecutors are helped by uninformed black jurors who dream up excuses to keep from serving in the jury box.

In Houston County (Dothan) several death sentences were reversed because of rank discrimination against black jurors. I will provide one quick example. Jerome Smith, young, black and mentally retarded was sentenced to death after the white prosecutor systematically excluded or struck 23 of the 24 blacks summoned for jury duty in the case, that is 96% of all the blacks on the list. Even an Alabama Appeal court couldn’t swallow that sort of overt racism in a death case and reversed Smith’s conviction.

Alabama has a larger percentage of juveniles on death row than any other state. In March 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared executing juveniles unconstitutional. Alabama courts are now slowly removing juveniles from death row and by the end of last week 13 children had been removed from death row and placed in the general prison population. I believe that some of Alabama’s elected prosecutors and legislators should be on death row.

In this state we have one of the harshest and most backward habitual offender laws in the country. Believe it or not, this stupid law makes no distinction whatsoever between violent and nonviolent offenders. Thus, thousands of young men convicted of committing nonviolent property crimes or drug offenses are serving long life sentences and some are even serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. How backwards, how racist can one state be?

Five years ago, some officials began belatedly to listen to a few of us because a crisis loomed in the prison system by reason of both a rapidly growing elderly population and the fact that every prison in the system was severely overcrowded. The backward Alabama legislature, however, would do no more than amend the habitual offender law to the effect that nonviolent offenders serving a life sentence without parole would be now eligible for parole. I wondered if things could get any worse.

I was soon to learn the answer.

Enforcement of the new law was blocked for three long years by Alabama’s inexperienced, know-nothing young Attorney General. This officious young man declared the new law unconstitutional. Lord, please help us! All of this in a state that was still jailing people for being poor. In black Birmingham, the black city court was sentencing black people to jail because there were too poor to pay fines. They had to be told that there is no way to reconcile fair and equal justice with jailing people because they are too poor to pay a fine. How about that from a black court?

Racism covers all kinds of injustices in our suspect judicial system. Third-rate professional plea bargainers masquerade as lawyers, along with imposing ridiculously high bail bonds on poor black people are just a few examples. That is why I left the mess almost 20 years ago. It is also the reason I may have to return to the fight.

J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr. is a civil rights attorney in Selma, Alabama. He is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders which is the largest black law firm in Alabama. Born in Selma and, after graduating from Howard University Law School, he began practicing law in Selma in 1958. He started as the only black lawyer in the town and has been challenging the establishment since then. His law firm now owns two radio stations in Selma and Mr. Chestnut hosts a radio talk show three days a week touted as the most popular radio show in south and central Alabama. He is the author of “Black in Selma” with Julia Cass (1989 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and writes a weekly column called the “Hard Cold Truth”. He can be reached at tmarshall@csspca.com.