Prosecutors in California excluded Jewish and Black jurors, records suggest

<span>Pamela Price, the Alameda county district attorney.</span><span>Photograph: Scott Strazzante/AP</span>
Pamela Price, the Alameda county district attorney.Photograph: Scott Strazzante/AP

A California district attorney’s office is reviewing more than 30 death penalty cases after it unearthed records suggesting prosecutors deliberately excluded Jewish and Black jurors from capital trials.

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Pamela Price, the Alameda county district attorney, whose jurisdiction includes Oakland, announced Monday that her office had uncovered handwritten notes by former prosecutors documenting discriminatory jury selection tactics in the 1990s. US judge Vince Chhabria, who is overseeing a case that led to the records discovery, has directed Price’s office to conduct the review of other cases, she said.

Chhabria wrote in an order on Monday that the “notes – especially when considered in conjunction with evidence presented in other cases – constitute strong evidence that, in prior decades, prosecutors from the office were engaged in a pattern of serious misconduct, automatically excluding Jewish and African American jurors in death penalty cases”.

The district attorney’s office released excerpts of prosecutors’ notes from the case of Ernest Dykes, who was sentenced to death in 1995 in Alameda county and whose appeal is ongoing. The documents show prosecutors marked down when prospective jurors were Jewish, repeatedly writing “Jew?” next to some people’s names and in one case appearing to mark when they confirmed the person was Jewish.

In another record, a prosecutor referred to a Black woman as a “short, fat, troll”. A prosecutor also remarked that a Black woman “says race no issue but I don’t believe her”. The prosecutors who wrote the notes were not named.

The district attorney’s office said it disclosed the notes to Dykes’ lawyers and Chhabria, and the judge allowed the records to be publicly released this week.

“The sixth amendment of the US constitution guarantees the right to a trial by an impartial jury of one’s peers,” Price said in a statement. “Any practice by prosecutors to eliminate potential jurors because of their race betrays that core pillar of the criminal justice system.”

Price said her office has identified 35 cases that could be impacted and that it will review “for any signs of being tainted by prosecutorial misconduct”. It’s unclear what timeframe the cases cover, but Price said the office was potentially looking as far back as 1977.

Brian Pomerantz, an attorney for Dykes, who was convicted of murder and attempted murder, praised Price for bringing the records to light. “It is overwhelming for Mr Dykes to learn that this kind of misconduct and prejudice was happening in his case. After 31 years in prison, he’s learning he didn’t get the fair trial he should have gotten. He’s always thought this … but to hear the DA’s office saying it themselves is profound.”

Pomerantz said the problem of discriminatory jury exclusion in Alameda county was systemic. A previous review by lawyers who represent capital defendants found that between 1984 and 1994, Alameda district attorneys removed every juror who identified themselves as Jewish if they still had peremptory strikes, KQED reported. Evidence of the exclusion of Black women and Jewish people from juries has led to three people being resentenced in the county, the outlet reported.

“This is horrifying. We have known for a long time that prosecutors often engage in unethical practices, but this scandal, uncovered by DA Pamela Price, is unparalleled,” Michael Collins, with racial justice group Color of Change, said in a statement. “For too long, prosecutors have sought to win at all costs, even if it means engaging in constitutional violations, civil rights violations and antisemitic and racially disparate practices that result in people sentenced to death.”

The revelations come as California’s governor has issued a moratorium on executions and has moved to shutter the state’s infamous death row facilities, transferring people with death sentences to the general population of prisons. The district attorney in nearby Santa Clara county also recently moved to resentence all of the men on death row in his jurisdiction, saying he was “not confident that these sentences were attained without racial bias”.