On this dayAug 29, 1968
Courts Uphold Death Sentences Imposed on Black People by All-White Juries
On August 29, 1968, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the conviction and death sentence of Leroy Taylor, a Black man convicted in Talladega County, Alabama by an all-white jury, despite the county being 26% Black at the time. His case followed a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court insulating racial bias in jury selection from review and remedy.
After Mr. Taylor was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 1963, he appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court claiming that the jury commission of Talladega County had repeatedly excluded eligible Black jurors from the jury roll, resulting in his being illegally tried by an all-white jury. Even though Black people in Talladega County made up 26% of the total population, Mr. Taylor was not given his constitutional right to be tried by a jury of his peers and the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed this illegal exclusion.
Just a few years prior, the same court had denied a petition from the same county in Swain v. State, which raised similar claims that Black people had been “habitually, intentionally, and systematically excluded from the jury rolls of Talladega County” in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Robert Swain, a Black man who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury, presented evidence that no Black person had served on a jury in Talladega County since 1950. Moreover, during jury selection at Mr. Swain’s trial, six Black men on the jury panel were removed by the prosecutor.
In 1965, in Swain v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court rejected Mr. Swain’s arguments. While conceding it would be illegal to use peremptory strikes to intentionally exclude Black people from jury service because of their race, the Court found that the facts in Mr. Swain’s case did not prove the prosecutor intentionally discriminated against Black potential jurors. This decision set the bar so high for proving discriminatory intent that few, if any, litigants were able to prove that prosecutors engaged in racial discrimination during jury selection for 20 years. As a result, defendants, like Mr. Taylor, continued to be convicted based on verdicts by all-white juries.
The history of jury discrimination is long. Although the 1875 Civil Rights Act banned the practice of racial discrimination in jury service and the Constitution guarantees the right for defendants to be tried by his or her peers, illegal discrimination of Black jurors and other jurors of color still persists today. As in the case of Mr. Taylor, the exclusion of African Americans from serving on juries not only denies defendants and prospective jurors their constitutional rights, but it undermines the credibility and reliability of our criminal justice system. In denying Mr. Taylor’s petition in 1963, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and death sentence of a Black man despite overwhelming evidence of racial discrimination.
Learn more about how Black people are excluded from juries in the Equal Justice Initiative's report Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection.