On January 4th of this year, Cornelius Dupree Jr. was freed from a Texas prison after serving more than 30 years of a 75-year sentence for a crime that he didn’t commit. In 1979, Dupree, now 51, was convicted of rape and robbery in Dallas and would have (with the exception of an unlikely appeal or parole) spent at best the majority of his life behind bars. Although his story seems an implausible miscarriage of justice, it is in actuality a story that has become a recurring narrative in the state of Texas. Dupree is the 41st inmate that has been exonerated in the state since 2001, due in large part to a crime lab with preserved DNA evidence and District Attorney Craig Watkins’ (the first African American D.A. in Texas history) passion for justice that overreaches his passion for convictions. Included in Watkins’ efforts has been the creation of a “Conviction Integrity Unit”, that not only scrutinizes hundreds of DNA cases for consistency, but also examines additional cases with multiple, potential perpetrators. While these efforts can certainly bring a measure of justice to those that have been improperly imprisoned, the enduring constructions of race and class suggest that accuracy in prosecution remains a distant reality.
Despite the narratives by some of a “post-racial society”, race still matters in America and arguably, the matters are greatest within the criminal justice system. African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans — particularly those of a lower socioeconomic status, experience overrepresentations in the criminal justice system that are incomparable to almost all other forms of disparate treatment in our society. From policing, to the courts, to sentencing, these groups bear (justified or not) the brunt of the system. And although there are numerous ways to examine these overrepresentations, the presentation of McClesky v. Kemp (1987) seems appropriate to understanding enduring prison exoneration.
In short, McClesky v. Kemp was a Supreme Court case where McClesky argued that his death penalty conviction was unconstitutional due to its administration and application in a racially discriminatory manner. In his attempt, he utilized a study by David Baldus that found a racially charged application of the death penalty in Georgia. The Supreme Court, while recognizing the findings of the Baldus study, stated in the majority opinion “as this Court has recognized, any mode for determining guilt or punishment ‘has its weaknesses and the potential for misuse.’" In other words, while the Court recognized the desire for a color-blind justice system, it also recognized a reasonable expectation of race and class-based discrimination as an expected consequence within the system.
The idea of a post-racial society, coupled with the optimistic presumption of the Supreme Court, should indicate that the influence of race and class on the criminal justice system is minimal. However, racial attitudes — both in and out of the criminal justice system — point to a system that will inevitably continue to incarcerate poor Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans based more upon how they are constructed than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
For example, race and class-based implicit associations — inherent biases and social constructions that individuals carry about groups and cultures — are the potential starting point for prosecuting the innocent (regardless of the race of the person with the implicit associations). It is how poor, racial and ethnic minorities are implicitly constructed that will determine perceived guilt. In an article entitled “Buried Prejudice: The Bigot in Your Brain”, Jennifer Richeson is cited as proposing that strong cultural stereotypes linking young African American men with crime, violence and danger can cause the brain to automatically give preferential associations to African American men in situations that support these associations. More important, additional research suggests that implicit associations can directly affect behaviors. Therefore, when criminal justice researchers examine race and class-based overrepresentations in racial profiling, use and excessive use of force, sentencing lengths, and death penalty application, the implicit associations are the potential gateway to discriminatory outcomes and are far stronger an influence than the Supreme Court argues. It should be noted that the examples provided above are of criminal justice professionals, who are trained in the philosophy of a color-blind justice system. The possibility of poor, racial minorities being constructed as guilty when they are in fact innocent is the primary responsibility of jurors — the defendant’s peers.
Jurors as individuals not only have the potential for uninhibited, implicit biases in their judicial verdicts, but also carry the potential for more overt race and class-based biases. Although Whites are neither the sole jurors in the criminal justice system, nor the sole race of people that construct implicit attitudes towards poor minorities, there is a measure of increased accountability as the majority population and the highest likelihood of juror service. In general, attitudinal research suggests that views of Whites regarding poor minorities are less than favorable. Generally, Bobo and Kluegel found in 1997 that Whites rate Blacks relatively lower in terms of intelligence (54%), laziness (62%), a preference to live on welfare (78%), and a proclivity to violence (56%). Specifically regarding views of the criminal justice system, a 2008 Gallup Poll research suggests that 55% of White Americans believe that racial discrimination in prison rates are either a minor factor or no factor of racism (compared to 17% of Black Americans) and that 46% of Whites say that blacks are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than Whites (compared to 72% of Blacks). Consequently, there are similar findings for Hispanics and Native Americans. Overall, seeing jurors as individuals with perceived views of a color-blind system and constructed views of poor Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans as “potential criminals” that fit the constructed stereotypes, can only produce outcomes where truth is second to perception.
Until we as Americans, regardless of race, address our views of poor Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans (many of which predate our existing criminal justice system) we can expect to see more Cornelius Duprees exonerated from the criminal justice system. In the spirit of a criminal justice system that is philosophically rooted in blind fairness, it must have higher standards of accuracy for its courts and jurors.
Scott Bowman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, Texas State University, San Marcos. He received his PhD in Justice Studies from Arizona State University. His research focuses on the intersectionalities of race and class, the influences of race and class on criminal behavior, and race, class, and juvenile justice.