From the Archives: Race in the Courtroom

This is a piece I wrote for the grant I’m working on at the Digital Production Center. We’re digitizing material relating to the civil rights movement and publishing the content online. For more on this digitization project, click here.

In a 1933 letter to Frank Porter Graham, president of the University of North Carolina System, a Charlotte lawyer named Marvin L. Ritch made a personal appeal on behalf of a man whom Ritch believed was wrongly convicted of murder and harshly sentenced. The defendant, Earnest Stamey, was a decorated veteran of World War I, and Ritch hoped that Graham would “not object to joining in the request for a real review” of the case. In the postscript of the letter Ritch writes:

“. . . Mr. &. Mrs. Stamey, and Mr. &. Mrs. John Carpenter, all white people took the stand in the trial and swore that Stamey did not leave his home on the night the crime was committed. Don’t you think that more than a reasonable doubt amount of direct and positive testimony?”

1933 letter to Frank Porter Graham from Marvin L. Ritch

Ritch deliberately identifies the race of the witnesses, suggesting that their whiteness alone connotes credible testimony in the court room, or at least testimony more credible than that provided by non-whites. This letter from the Southern Historical Collection’s Frank Porter Graham Papers—a portion of which was recently digitized as part of the multi-institutional grant project Content, Context, and Capacity (CCC)—reveals the role that race played in the courtroom beyond the race of the defendant and the jurors. The race of the witnesses mattered to Ritch and perhaps influenced his decision to advocate on behalf of Stamey.

Today, race continues to influence courtroom justice. In 2009 North Carolina General Assembly passed the Racial Justice Act allowing death row inmates to appeal their sentences if they believe that race was a significant factor in their sentencing. If the defendant can prove that race was a significant factor, the death penalty is commuted to a life sentence without parole.

Recently, the Racial Justice Act was being considered for repeal and both critics and advocates were debating how the presence or absence of the law would affect the death-row inmate population, the parole system, and the safety of the general population.  Ultimately, North Carolina Governor Beverly Purdue vetoed the repeal of the act stating, “it is simply unacceptable for racial prejudice to play a role in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina.”

Though debated and contested, the Racial Justice Act remains on the books, intended as a legal check against the potential for racial bias in North Carolina courtrooms. Though recent events demonstrate that racial bias in sentencing is a contemporary issue, Ritch’s letter is evidence that it is by no means a new one. Race had the potential to affect sentences in 1933, and that same potential exists today.

by Shea Swauger, CCC Graduate Research Assistant

Sources:
Breen, Tom (2011, December 04). Experts: Racial Justice Act not likely to set killers free. CharlotteObserver.com Retrieved from http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2011/12/04/2824700/experts-racial-justice-act-not.html

House Bill 472 (S461). Racial Justice Act. General Assembly (2011). Retrieved from http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/gascripts/billlookup/billlookup.pl?Session=2009&BillID=H472

NBC 16 Staff (2011. December 14). Gov. Perdue vetoes repeal of Racial Justice Act. NBC 17. Retrieved from http://www2.nbc17.com/news/2011/dec/14/3/gov-perdue-vetoes-repeal-racial-justice-act-ar-1713506/

Ritch, Marvin L. (personal communication, September 13th, 1933) Retrieved from http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/01819&CISOPTR=18044&CISOBOX=1&REC=6

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