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Sotomayor Scorches Prosecutor for Use of Racial Stereotype in Conviction

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Monday, February 25, 2013

United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a sharp rebuke to Texas federal prosecutors for racially charged remarks made during the trial of Bongani Charles Calhoun, an African-American man accused of participating in a drug conspiracy.  Justice Sotomayor, in a statement joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, recounted the racially inflammatory remarks made by the Assistant United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas: “You’ve got African-Americans, you’ve got Hispanics, you’ve got a bag full of money. Does that tell you-a light bulb doesn’t go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?”

After describing the “deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our Nation,” Justice Sotomayor chastised the prosecutor’s “pernicious . . . attempt to substitute racial stereotypes for evidence, and racial prejudice for reason” and explained that “such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law.”  Although the Court did not explain its reasons for rejecting requests for review, it appears that procedural rules prevented it from taking further action on Mr. Calhoun’s request to have his conviction set aside based on the prosecutor’s inflammatory question.

By speaking out, Justice Sotomayor lent a powerful voice to a core Constitutional principle: racism cannot be tolerated in the criminal justice system, or in any of the institutions that govern our lives.  Mr. Calhoun’s experience, along with those of countless others in communities and courtrooms across the country, demonstrates that the fight to eradicate racial bias from criminal justice is far from over.  

LDF currently represents Duane Buck, an African-American man who was sentenced to death in Texas after his trial prosecutor elicited evidence and presented argument indicating that Mr. Buck posed a future danger because of his race.