ST. LOUIS (CN) - St. Louis County prosecutors use a "Postman Gambit" to systematically strike black jurors from death penalty cases against black defendants, dozens of lawmakers and religious leaders claim in a letter to Gov. Jay Nixon.
More than 60 elected officials, organizations and clergy signed the April 2 letter urging Nixon to reconsider the impending executions of Andre Cole, on April 14, and Kimber Edwards, on May 12.
The letter notes that Cole was sentenced by an all-white jury though 24 percent of St. Louis County's population is black.
"To obtain that all-white jury, the St. Louis County prosecutors used their peremptory strikes to remove all three of the black juror-panelists who were available for service," the letter states. "It removed one black potential juror because he was divorced, but did not remove a similarly situated white juror who was also divorced and paying child support, which was the theorized motive for Mr. Cole breaking into his ex-wife's home, where her boyfriend was fatally stabbed."
The letter also cites concerns about juror conduct. It says that an alternate juror claimed the jurors violated the court's explicit instructions by discussing the case and deciding issues of guilt and innocence during recesses.
"The problem is rampant - Missouri courts have found that St. Louis County prosecutors have stricken black jurors because of race in five more trials since those of Andre Cole and Kimber Edwards," attorney Joe Luby, who represents Cole, said in a statement. "Herbert Smulls was executed last year and his conviction and sentence of death was secured from an all-white St. Louis jury."
The letter calls the Edwards case troubling for its elimination of all three black juror panelists. It notes that a black juror was struck because of possible anti-police sentiments, while a white juror was kept even though the white juror's nephew was in prison and the white juror had complained about the harshness of the criminal justice system.
Another black juror was struck because he was a postal worker.
"According to a former prosecutor from St. Louis County, the prosecutor in Smulls is known to have invented the 'Postman Gambit' as a way to eliminate potential black jurors," the letter states. "Postal workers in St. Louis County are disproportionately African-American, and the office used the 'Postman Gambit' as a pretext to strike as many black jurors as possible."
The letter does not name the prosecutor who invented the "Postman Gambit," but says he was one of the prosecutors who worked the Cole trial and that the tactic was used in the Edwards trial.
The letter notes that there are 11 prisoners on Missouri's death row, seven of them black. So 64 percent of St. Louis County's death row inmates are black, though African Americans are only 24 percent of the county population.
"Missouri has been in the news a lot recently regarding its racially biased law enforcement practices - the federal government even issued a report criticizing its disparate treatment of black residents," NAACP President Mary Ratliff said in a statement.
"Excluding and targeting black people happens in capital cases in St. Louis too - and regardless of one's views about capital punishment, our justice system should not tolerate disparate or unequal treatment - particularly when a life is at stake."
Ferguson activists signed the letter too.
"St. Louis County is, of course, home to the City of Ferguson and to the deeply troubling events of recent months there," Denise Leiberman of the Don't Shoot Coalition said in a statement.
"The Department of Justice's strong rebuke of Ferguson's law enforcement practices and their impact on African-American citizens should resonate across St. Louis County. Racial disparities in capital convictions from St. Louis County exceed even those condemned by the Department of Justice's recent report on Ferguson. This must be investigated."
Nixon, who spent 16 years as Missouri's Attorney General before the past seven as governor, has overseen more than half of the Missouri's executions since the state took over the practice from county sheriffs in 1937.
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