On Tuesday, April 15th, Widener Law and area civic groups presented “Race and the death penalty: Is justice colorblind?” The program featured a group of experts discussing the links between race and the death penalty.
Kevin O’Connell of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty opened the program by thanking Widener Law Dean Linda Ammons and Special Programs Coordinator Connie Sweeney for their support of the event before turning the program over to Widener Law student and Justice of the Phi Alpha Delta Legal Fraternity Justin Roberts. Roberts introduced each of the panelists, starting with Widener Law professor and Director of the Criminal Defense Clinic Judith Ritter. The other panelists included assistant public defender in the Philadelphia capital habeas unit Keisha N. Hudson, University of Delaware associate professor of sociology and criminal justice Benjamin Fleury-Steiner, and featured presenter professor Sheri Lynn Johnson of Cornell University Law School.
Professor Johnson, assistant director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project and a graduate of Yale Law School, spoke first, emphasizing empirical data that indicated a statistically significant link between race and the application of the death penalty. Professor Fleury-Steiner spoke next, presenting a number of quotes from jurors collected during his research that indicated a disturbing level of bias. Keisha Hudson spoke about bias in jury selection, and she played video clips of former Philadelphia district attorney Jack McMahon instructing prosecutors about ways to block the selection of black jurors, particularly “young black women” and “educated blacks”.
Professor Ritter spoke last, mentioning the law school’s recently established Law & Inequality Project and efforts to combat disparities in the law. Professor Johnson called for the abolishment of the death penalty before offering a more moderate approach to mitigating uneven applications of death penalty laws.