The district attorney dismissed every one of the 24 blacks who qualified to serve on the jury, including Edith Ferguson, who had worked for the Selma, Ala., Police Department for many years. The reason cited for striking Ferguson from being a juror: "low intelligence."
Bryan Stevenson of the nonprofit group Equal Justice Initiative tells NPR's Guy Raz that assertions about intelligence are "one of the most troubling but persistent reasons" given to dismiss potential jurors who are black. Many of those potential jurors are college graduates, Stevenson says.
Last year, McGahee was granted a new trial because of the racially discriminatory jury selection in his original case. But many defendants are not so lucky.
Study Documents 'Widespread Discrimination'
In a new study, Stevenson's group details "widespread discrimination" in the selection of jurors across the Deep South.
He says it's been illegal to exclude people from jury service on the basis of race since 1875. But prosecutors can give any reason they want for dismissing a juror, and it's rarely challenged.
Stevenson found that serious criminal cases and death penalty cases are even more prone to have discriminatory jury selection than other types of cases.
The study looked at eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and South Carolina. In some counties, 80 percent of the African-Americans who had qualified for jury service were excluded.
"The evidence of racial bias that we focus on is evidence that's pretty obvious," said Stevenson. "It tends not to be unintentional. ... We've had African-American jurors excluded because they're too old at 43, because they're too young at 28, while other white jurors much older are being accepted, and other white jurors much younger are being accepted. ... We've had jurors excluded because they were in an interracial marriage or had a biracial son.
"It is a violation of the law," says Stevenson, "but it is an area of the law where there has been almost no enforcement."
A Sense Of Humiliation
For some of the people he spoke to, Stevenson says, state courts found they had been illegally excluded from juries on the basis of race.
He says many felt humiliated, knowing that the assertions against them were false and demeaning.
Stevenson says the problem could be fixed if laws on the books were enforced. He says prosecutors should report on jury diversity, and that trial and appellate courts should more rigorously enforce laws from state and federal statutes and Supreme Court rulings through sanctions and fines.
But he admits that the habit will be hard to break.
"The culture has tolerated this all-white jury, white prosecutor, white judge phenomenon, because that's what people have seen for decades."