MARCH 15, 2013 / BY LYLA BUGARA Sonia Sotomayor condemns federal prosecutor's racist statement

Last week, Sonia Sotomayor stood in strong defense of racial equality. In a supplemental statement to a Supreme Court decision not to hear the case of Bongani Charles Calhoun, Justice Sotomayor explicitly condemned the shameful history of racism in the American criminal justice system. Calhoun claimed that racially charged comments from a federal prosecutor influenced the outcome of his trial and violated his constitutional rights.

Although the Supreme Court ultimately decided not to hear the case due to a procedural problem with the appeal, Justice Sotomayor wrote this additional statement to dispel any perception that their decision signaled approval of the prosecutor's remarks. Condemning the racist comment, Justice Sotomayor wrote,

"The prosecutor here tapped a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our Nation. There was a time when appeals to race were not uncommon, when a prosecutor might direct a jury to " 'consider the fact that Mary Sue Row is a young white woman and that this defendant is a black man for the purpose of determining his intent...The prosecutor's comment here...was pernicious in its attempt to substitute racial stereotypes for evidence, and racial prejudice for reason...such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law."

Justice Sotomayor also chided lower courts for failing to recognize the injustice of the prosecutor's comments, specifically a Fifth Circuit Court that described it only as "impolitic." Too often, the very existence of racism in the criminal justice system is challenged, but Justice Sotomayor's words offer refreshing recognition from the highest court in the land.

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