Last week, a federal judge in South Carolina reversed the death sentence of Johnny Bennett as a result of 11th Judicial Circuit District Attorney Donnie Myers’s racially-charged misconduct, and racist comments made by a juror. Bennett, a black man, was sentenced to death in 1995 by an all-white jury.
On appeal, U.S. District Judge Mark Gergel of South Carolina, found that during Bennett’s trial, Myers specifically used race as a way to bait and incentivize the jury to give Bennett a death sentence. Myers called Bennett, a black man with a bulky build, “King Kong,” a “beast of burden,” and other racist names in the course of the death penalty trial. The court found that he also derisively and repeatedly pointed out Bennett’s sexual relationship with a “blonde-headed lady” as part of a trial strategy to prejudice the jury and gain a death sentenced based on Bennett’s race.
In vacating Bennett’s death sentence, Judge Gergel found that Myers’ racially-charged epithets were part of an unconstitutional trial strategy designed to bias the jurors in favor of a death sentence. Gergel also found that Bennett was sentenced to death by an all-white jury which included an openly racist juror who called Bennett a “dumb n***r” and then added, “that was just the way I felt about it.”
This is not the first time Myers has had a death sentence reversed due to misconduct. The District Attorney has personally attained 39 death sentences against 28 defendants (some were sentenced twice), earning him the nickname “Dr. Death.” By 2016, 12 of those 28 defendants had their death sentences overturned, two of which were reversed directly due to Myers’ misconduct. Myers has only ever received a private reprimand from the state bar for his multiple acts of misconduct.
Myers has vowed to appeal Judge Gergel’s decision despite making a statement that he would not run for re-election after his second DWI arrest.
Update on April 15, 2016
Attorney General Wilson could have accepted U.S. District Judge Gergel’s ruling to grant a new sentencing hearing for Johnny Bennett, but he has instead decided to fight it. Wilson’s decision to appeal is especially concerning given that the State admitted that an openly racist juror, who referred to the defendant as a “dumb n***r”, had participated in the capital trial and sentencing. As the prosecutor put it, “there is no dispute that the [juror’s] statement is racist.” In addition, Wilson’s office could not provide any explanation to Judge Gergel for why Solicitor Myers referred to the defendant as “King Kong” and “beast of burden,” apart from an effort to bias the jury with racist language. This appeal only serves to delay Mr. Bennett’s chance to have a fair sentencing hearing. It is the duty of the prosecutor to seek justice, not merely to convict. But this decision shows that the State is willing to do almost anything to win a death sentence, even if it means condoning racism.
Special thanks to Justice 360 for bringing this update to our attention.