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Judge orders review of Alameda County death penalty convictions over apparent exclusion of Jewish, Black female jurors

Alameda County DA to review 35 death penalty cases after apparent racial bias by prosecutors
Alameda County DA to review 35 death penalty cases after apparent racial bias by prosecutors 03:16

A judge has ordered a review of all death penalty convictions from Alameda County following the discovery of prosecutors' notes that appear to show the illegal exclusion of Jewish and Black female jurors from the jury pool. 

Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price on Monday disclosed the evidence of prosecutorial misconduct in death penalty cases spanning over three decades. 

The notes were found during the appeal of the death penalty sentence of Ernest Dykes, convicted in 1995 of murdering 9-year-old Lance Clark and the attempted murder of his grandmother during a robbery in East Oakland. He is appealing the sentence.

As part of the case, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria asked the Alameda County District Attorney's Office to review the case file and in a press statement Monday, District Attorney Pamela Price said one of her deputies found handwritten notes that showed disdain for Jewish and Black female jurors and an effort to exclude them from the jury pool.

"My office has discovered evidence of prosecutorial misconduct involved in the death penalty cases," said Pamela Price, emphasizing the gravity of the situation. "In the course of reviewing Mr. Dykes' sentence, my office discovered evidence of a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct that could impact all the death penalty cases in Alameda County over the last 30 years."

After the DA's Office shared the notes with Chhabria, he then directed a review of all death penalty cases from the county for any potential signs of prosecutorial misconduct in the form of the exclusion of jurors based solely on race, the office said. State and federal law prohibits jurors from being removed because of race or ethnicity.

The DA's office shared the notes publicly through Monday's press statement. In one note, a Black female juror is characterized as a "short, fat, troll," who the prosecutor noted "seemed put out my Q's about the D/P [death penalty] ... don't believe she could vote D/P." 

Another prosecutors' notes listed whether prospective jurors were Jewish, with scribbles reading, "Banker. Jew?" "Nice guy ... thoughtful but never a strong DP leader - Jewish background."

"The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by an impartial jury of one's peers," said Price in a prepared statement. "Any practice by prosecutors to eliminate potential jurors because of their race betrays that core pillar of the criminal justice system. As the Ninth Circuit has pointed out, "It does not matter that the prosecutor might have had good reasons to strike the prospective jurors. What matters is the real reason they were stricken. A Wheeler violation is prejudicial per se because racial discrimination in jury selection undermines the structural integrity of the criminal tribunal itself. My office is committed to following Judge Chhabria's direction in reviewing all death penalty cases in Alameda County for any signs of being tainted by prosecutorial misconduct from the past."

There have long been allegations that Alameda County prosecutors systematically prevented Black and Jewish residents from serving on death penalty juries, based on the perception that those jurors were more likely to oppose the death penalty. The issue was the subject of a 2005 California Supreme Court hearing.

The DA's Office said 35 death penalty cases have been identified and are now under review. A review of the death penalty cases could result in a resentencing or even a retrial.

While the review process is likely to reopen old wounds and evoke painful memories for victims' families, Nina Salarno Besselman, President of Crime Victims United, stressed the importance of ensuring a just and fair legal outcome.

"The DA's hands are tied, because she has to follow a court order," said Salarno Besselman, acknowledging the complexities and challenges of the situation.

Price's office is actively reaching out to victims and survivors associated with these cases, offering support and information. On April 26, the DA's office was planning to hold an open event for those seeking additional information.

The office urged anyone who has not been contacted but was directly impacted by any of the cases to contact the assigned Victim-Witness Advocates at 510-208-9555 or email them at 

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on death sentences in 2019.

Jose Martinez contributed to this story.

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