On September 12, 1986, Earl McGahee, a 29-year-old African-American man, was convicted of murdering his ex-wife and another student at George Wallace Community College in Selma, Alabama, and sentenced to death. Though the trial took place in Selma’s Dallas County, which was 55 percent black and the birthplace of the Voting Rights Act, McGahee was convicted by an all-white jury because prosecutors struck all 24 eligible African-American jurors from the case. Six black jurors were removed for “low intelligence,” the prosecution said.
As Alabama’s attorney general from 1995 to 1997, Jeff Sessions defended the prosecutor’s actions when the case was appealed. The district attorney for Dallas County, Roy Johnson, who oversaw the McGahee prosecution, had also recommended that Sessions prosecute three longtime civil-rights activists in Alabama for voter fraud—a trial that Sessions lost and that contributed to his being blocked for a federal judgeship in 1986. Sessions called Johnson an “outstanding prosecutor” and a “personal friend.”
“When he was attorney general, we had a horrific problem of racial bias in jury selection,” says Bryan Stevenson, the renowned civil-rights lawyer and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. “Before Sessions took office, courts had reversed 23 cases where there had been intentional exclusion of people of color on juries and his office defended most of those cases…. He was defending the prosecutor’s conduct in the McGahee case and saying it was not unconstitutional or illegal or discriminatory, despite the fact that all 24 African Americans who qualified for jury service were excluded.”
Stevenson argued McGahee’s case on appeal and in 2009 the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit vacated his death sentence, citing “intentional discrimination” by the prosecution and an “astonishing pattern resulting from the total exclusion of African-Americans.” When his sentence was overturned, McGahee had been on death row in Alabama for 23 years.
Stevenson, who has been a civil-rights lawyer in Alabama for over 25 years, says the McGahee case is just one example of Sessions’s extreme and increasingly outdated views on crime and punishment and racial justice. This is particularly noteworthy given that Sessions was blocked as a federal judge in 1986 for his discriminatory actions and views, and has done little to support racial equality since then. As Trump’s attorney general, Sessions would almost certainly roll back the Obama administration’s efforts to make the criminal-justice system more fair and just in areas like policing, incarceration, and private prisons.