I know that California’s death penalty system is plagued by racial bias. I know it, not only because of the solid data and multiple research studies that have documented it, but also because I lived it myself. I was sent to San Quentin’s death row for a crime I did not commit. It took me five long years to prove my innocence and win my freedom, but if the state of California had had its way, I would not be alive today.
The case against me was based entirely on false accusations and circumstantial evidence. But in California, and in all death penalty states, a black person accused of killing a white person is exponentially more likely to be convicted and sentenced to death. This is the result of implicit racial bias, and in some cases overt racism, on the part of judges, attorneys and juries. In my case, the district attorney systematically excluded all African-American jurors and the judge allowed it.
California has the largest death row in the country and 67 percent of the people on California’s death row are Black, Latino, Asian, Native American or other people of color. Riverside County has sentenced more people to death in recent years than any other county in the U.S. and 92 percent of those sentenced to death were people of color. Under the current district attorney, 23 people have been sentenced to death in Los Angeles county. Twenty-two of them were Black, Latino or other people of color.
We have to wonder how many white people convicted of similar crimes were given lesser sentences. We have to wonder how many of the 485 people of color currently on California death row are there because the victim in their case was white, or because they had an all-white jury. With such bias in the legal process, we should also wonder how many of them are victims of wrongful convictions.
One year ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions, saying “Just last year we had someone who was exonerated that spent 26 years on death row – joining the ranks of 164 human beings that have been exonerated, that have spent time on death row. It’s a racist system. You cannot deny that. It’s a system that is perpetuating inequality. It’s a system that I cannot in good conscience support.”
Gov. Newsom took a bold first step toward addressing racism in the system by halting executions. Now it is time for the California State Legislature to act.
Today, Assembly member Ash Kalra will introduce Assembly Bill 2200, the California Racial Justice Act, to prohibit racial discrimination in convictions and sentences. Kentucky and North Carolina both enacted Racial Justice Acts specific to the death penalty, though the North Carolina law was later repealed when the majority in the legislature changed parties. The California Racial Justice Act will go further by prohibiting racial discrimination in all convictions and sentences, and by creating a process to challenge racial bias at trial or following conviction.
California’s civil rights law clearly prohibits racial discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation. But nowhere in California law is there a clear statement that racial discrimination will not be tolerated in our criminal justice system. In fact, the opposite is happening right now.
Judges routinely condemn racially discriminatory behavior and outcomes in individual cases but do nothing about it. People remain on death row, or serving other extreme sentences like life without parole, despite clear evidence that the attorney who represented them was racist towards them. People remain in prison for decades despite clear evidence that the prosecutor removed all Black and Latino people from the jury – as happened in my case – or used offensive language to secure a conviction, for example, comparing the defendant to an animal. And people remain on death row and serving extreme sentences despite strong evidence of racial disparities in convictions and sentences.
For decades, we have been told by judges that these and other forms of racial discrimination in our criminal justice system are inevitable, unfixable or harmless errors.
Racial discrimination in the criminal justice system is not harmless. Racial discrimination in the criminal justice system is not inevitable. We can no longer accept racial bias in the criminal justice system as unfixable. We who believe in justice must confront and challenge bias as we see it. The California Racial Justice Act will make that possible.
Shujaa Graham, Peer Organizer for Witness to Innocence, a national organization of death row exonerees, was the 20th person to be exonerated from death row in the United States.
Read Shujaa's Op-Ed here.