What does color of skin have to do with equal access to justice in America? The Equal Protection Clause, part of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which took effect in 1868, provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws.”  In 2017 America, does every person have equal protection under the law, or not?

Over the past month, Life of the Law presented Sarah Marshall’s two part report on the life and execution of Warren McCleskey.

Unequal Protection Part 1

Unequal Protection Part 2

Warren McCleskey was a black man living in Georgia. He was convicted and sentenced to death for his role in the robbery of a furniture store and the murder of a white police officer. He appealed his death sentence all the way to the US Supreme Court in the case, McCleskey v Kemp on the grounds that he was sentenced to die because he was black. McCleskey’s attorneys presented evidence known as the Baldus Study — evidence, statistics, data — to prove that blacks disproportionately received death sentences when the murder victims were white, that the color of skin and racial prejudice directly affected his death sentence, and many other death sentences in Georgia.

Four of the Court’s justices accepted the evidence that Warren’s right to equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the US Constitution had been violated. But 5 of the justices rejected Warren’s evidence and in 1991, Warren McCleskey was executed.

To many legal scholars, the court’s disturbing 5-4 ruling in McCleskey v Kemp was the beginning of the end of equal protection under the law in America.

We took Sarah’s reports and the Supreme Court’s 1987 5-4 ruling on McCleskey V Kemp inside San Quentin State Prison to talk with men charged, convicted and sentenced about race, equal protection, and criminal justice in 2017 America.


Production Notes:

In-Studio San Quentin State Prison was edited and produced by Shadeed Wallace Stepter and Tony Gannon. We want to thank Shadeed Wallace Stepter, Rahsaan Thomas, and Emile DeWeaver of the Society of Professional Journalists, San Quentin; Osagie Obasogie, Life of the Law’s Advisory Board Member and Professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health; Lt. Sam Robinson, San Quentin State Prison Public Information Officer; and Larry Schneider, Media Advisor, San Quentin State Prison, for making production and publication of this episode, possible.

Our post production editors are Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle and Rachael Cain.  Music in this episode was composed by Ian Coss. Howard Gelman of KQED Radio in San Francisco was our engineer.

This episode of Life of the Law was funded in part by grants from the Open Society Foundations, the Law and Society Association, and the National Science Foundation.

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