At Bell Lecture, capital defender Stephen Bright looks at the role of race and poverty in death row cases

The majority of the United States’ death row cases occur in just three percent of its counties. And 16 percent of counties account for all executions. Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, has spent his career working with death-row defendants in these areas of the country. In the 19th Annual Derrick Bell Lecture on Race in American Society, Bright spoke about his experiences with death row clients and the role of race and poverty in the capital punishment system.

Stephen Bright

Bright opened his speech with the story of Glenn Ford, an African-American man who was accused of the robbery and murder of a jeweler in Shreveport, Louisiana, and sentenced to death. Ford was exonerated and released in March 2013 after 30 years in prison—one of 147 people who has been sentenced to death and later exonerated in the last 40 years, Bright said.

“Because Ford had occasionally done some yard work for the victim, he was accused—that’s all it takes. I’ve had those cases myself, where the white person is dead, and this is the person who mowed the grass, this is the person who had some tangential connection and based on nothing more than that, that person is elected to be the defendant in this case,” Bright said.

Ford did not have the means to hire his lawyer, and so was represented by two court-appointed lawyers who had never before tried a capital punishment case. Lack of good representation, Bright said, is one of the key elements that stack courts against poor defendants. In another case that Bright described, a court-appointed lawyer failed to meet the deadline to file a writ of habeas corpus for two death-sentenced inmates.

In addition to poorly prepared court-appointed lawyers, Bright said, Ford also faced racial discrimination in jury selection—a problem that is particularly pervasive in southern capital cases. “The prosecution used its peremptory, its discretionary jury strikes to exclude every African-American [from the jury],” Bright said. “Despite the weak case against him, Ford, who was virtually defenseless before an all-white jury, was sentenced to death… In that one case race and poverty denied a man thirty years of his life.”

Bright also argued that elected judiciaries, such as those in Texas, play an important role in perpetuating injustice. “The fact of the matter is, the only place that the constitutional issues—the suppression of exculpatory evidence, race discrimination—the only place where that’s going to have a chance is before life-tenured, federal judges,” he said.   

Looking at a system permeated by poor representation, racial discrimination, and the corruption of elected judges, Bright said, starkly, “there’s no great Supreme Court decision, there’s no great legislative action that’s going to change this. We will always be challenged by it, it will require our eternal vigilance.”

But, Bright said, there is work being done throughout the country that gives reason for hope. “I want to note and commend Corey Stoughton and her team at the New York Civil Liberties Union for just working out a settlement in advancing the right to council in the case of Hurrell-Harring v. State,” he said. Stoughton is an adjunct professor at NYU and students in her New York Civil Liberties clinic contributed to the years-long case preparation. Bright also pointed to the work of Professor Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative—and recommended Stevenson’s new book, Just Mercy, as an important work on this subject.

Janet Dewart Bell, in attendance at the annual lecture she began as a 65th birthday gift to her late husband, Derrick.

Addressing the students in the audience, Bright gave a pep talk, with sobering implications: “You have the opportunity to make a difference. Don’t go out of this place thinking that you can’t make a difference. You can make a difference in saving a person’s life, and people are doing it, as we’ve talked about. But you can make a difference in getting bail for that person who, if they go to jail, will lose their job and their home and their transportation. You can offer hope and comfort to people who have been neglected and mistreated and despised.”

Watch the full video of the event (1 h, 14 min):

Posted November 13, 2014