A white man wearing a tallit stands speaking at a podium on the courthouse steps
Rabbi Josh Weisman of Temple Beth Sholom speaks at a rally against the alleged purposeful withholding of Black and Jewish people from juries in Alameda County death penalty cases at Alameda County Superior Courthouse in Oakland, June 18, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

‘A perversion of justice’: Rally decries exclusion of Black and Jewish jurors in Alameda County

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For more than 30 years in Alameda County, potential Black and Jewish jurors have been excluded from capital trials — cases where the defendant faced the death penalty. And that, said speakers at a rally Tuesday outside the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland, is a gross miscarriage of justice, one that demands immediate remedy.

Defendants facing criminal charges are guaranteed trial by an “impartial” jury of one’s peers, drawn from a “cross-section of the community,” according to the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court.

“A jury of your peers means a jury of your peers,” said Rabbi Josh Weisman of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro. “If specific ethnic groups are excluded, that’s a perversion of justice.”

The morning rally, sponsored by an array of local rights organizations, called for the resentencing of every prisoner who received the death penalty in Alameda County. (Gov. Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on executions in California in 2019, to last through 2026, the end of Newsom’s term, and likely longer.) Demonstrators also demanded that all current and former prosecutors and judges implicated in this longstanding and illegal practice be held accountable.

“We must ensure they never find employment in the legal system again,” said an activist who calls herself Turtle Woman from the progressive group Bend the Arc: Jewish Action California. 

Interfaith leaders participated in the courthouse rally.

It’s yet another example of the systemic racism plaguing our city, our state and our country.

“We are here to confront a grave injustice in our jury system,” said Brent Turner, an Oakland church deacon who is also active with the San Francisco Black and Jewish Unity Coalition. “It’s yet another example of the systemic racism plaguing our city, our state and our country.

“The thought of how many lives have been lost because of the intentional exclusion of Black and Jewish jurors is heartbreaking,” he said.

Morgan Zamora of the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights blasted what she called “a legacy of prosecutorial bias” in Alameda County, which she told the crowd “has resulted in harsher sentences” than might have been expected.

Yoel Haile of the ACLU of Northern California echoed Zamora’s charge, saying that “previous DAs have failed to curb the practice of these inequalities” that he said were designed to bring about “convictions at any cost.” 

“We call on the state’s attorney general, the state bar and the Committee on Judicial Performance to hold accountable prosecutors and judges implicated in this,” Zamora said. “Such practices further erode trust in our legal system.”

Speakers at the rally expressed support for Alameda County DA Pamela Price, whose office uncovered evidence of the practice in 2023 during the appeal of a man on death row since 1985 and shared that information with attorneys and the judge in the case. As a result, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria instructed Price’s office to review every one of the 35 capital cases from Alameda County. 

More than one speaker noted that the exclusion of Black and Jewish individuals from jury pools has been known within the department since the early 2000s, and only now, under Price’s tenure, is it being acknowledged. 

Brent Turner of the San Francisco Bay Area Black and Jewish Unity Coalition speaks at the rally. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

DA Price, who was elected in 2022, has openly declared her opposition to the death penalty. She is facing a recall election in November.

“Other DAs have turned a blind eye to this issue,” Turner told the crowd. “We commend DA Price for her courage in bringing it to light.”

A New York Times article from 2005 reported that a former deputy DA from Oakland made a sworn statement declaring it was “standard practice” over the years in Alameda County to exclude Jews and Black women from death penalty juries, because it was felt they would not convict. 

“The judge [in one case in 1987] told me, no Jew would vote to send a defendant to the gas chamber,” the deputy DA said in his statement.

None of the speakers on Tuesday, however, addressed whether excluding these two groups from the jury pool in capital cases might have resulted in more death penalty convictions. 

Rabbi Weisman noted that Black and Jewish Americans share a common history of being marginalized, and he intimated that they might bring that experience to bear in cases they are asked to consider. 

“Just who is afraid of Black and Jewish jurors in death penalty cases?” he asked the crowd. “And why are they afraid? Is it because of the sense of connection to our histories of oppression?”

Citing the 18th-century Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, Weisman told the crowd that the exhortation “Justice, justice shall you pursue” in Deuteronomy repeats the word “justice” to demand that the pursuit of justice must itself be conducted justly, if the end result is to be just.

“To exclude someone from a jury based on their identity is not justice,” he said. “And if a judgment is reached by unjust means, it is not just.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].