News & Politics

Justice Sotomayor Slams Racist Texas Attorney

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor harshly criticized a Texas prosecutor who made racially charged remarks.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2009.
Photo Credit: Commons

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor harshly criticized a Texas prosecutor who made racially charged remarks related to a drug dealing conviction

Sotomayor released the scathing statement yesterday. It was appended to a decision indicating that the Supreme Court would not review a request by the man charged with dealing drugs to have his conviction looked at again. The Sotomayor statement was joined by Justice Steven Breyer.

The case in question concerns Bongani Charles Calhoun, who was convicted after he traveled with friends who were dealing drugs. Calhoun “contended that while he went along on a road trip with several friends, he did not know they planned to buy cocaine,” the Los Angeles Times notes. “The jury heard two of the co-conspirators testify that Calhoun knew about the drug deal. They also said they had more than $400,000 in cash.”

When Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam L. Ponder was questioning Calhoun, he said: “You’ve got African Americans, you’ve got Hispanics, you’ve got a bag full of money. Does that tell you — a light bulb doesn’t go off in your head and say, ‘This is a drug deal?’ ” Those were the comments that set Sotomayor off.

“By suggesting that race should play a role in establishing a defendant's guilt, the prosecutor here tapped a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our nation,” the justice said. “It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this base tactic more than a decade into the 21st century. Such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law. We expect the government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.”

Previously, a federal appeals court judge had said the same thing. “Such racially charged comments are completely inappropriate for any lawyer. It is particularly inappropriate for an assistant U.S. attorney — a prosecutor — to behave this way,” wrote Judge Catharina Haynes.

Still, Sotomayor’s remarks did not mean that Calhoun won his case. Instead, Sotomayor said technical mistakes made by Calhoun’s attorney meant that the petition should be denied.

Ponder said he had been taken out of context in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It was the end of the day, and it was something I was trying to articulate, and I didn't do a very good job of it. That's all I can say,” he said.

Sotomayor said that she hopes to never “see a case like this again.” Ponder’s trail of thought speaks to a much larger problem. The remarks from Ponder are a striking example of the racially discriminatory nature of the criminal justice system.

“If prosecutors using race as evidence of deviant behavior does not set a light bulb off in your head about the role racism plays in the criminal justice system, I don't know what will,” AlterNet’s Kristen Gwynne commented.

Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.