chapter  4
25 Pages

Race and Death Sentencing: Isaac Unah


Robert Bacon and his girlfriend, Bonnie Clark, were each tried and convicted of first-degree murder in Onslow County, North Carolina in 1991 for the 1987 killing of Glennie Leroy Clark, Bonnie’s estranged husband. According to court and other public records, the murder was suggested, planned, and instigated by Bonnie because Glennie (reportedly an alcoholic) had physically and emotionally abused her and their two children during the marriage.2 Robert had never been involved in criminal activity before and was reluctant to help Bonnie kill her husband. But Bonnie persisted. She informed Robert that she was the beneficiary of a $50,000 life insurance policy on Glennie, which they could use together. Eventually, Robert agreed to help but only after Glennie had called him by a racial epithet during a heated encounter. Ultimately, the attack on Glennie was carried out by both defendants. After Bacon was arrested, he quickly confessed to having stabbed Glennie. He showed contrition and cooperated fully throughout the investigation and trial proceedings. Bonnie, on the other hand, lied and prevaricated with the police about her involvement. One officer said: “She played us for dummies.” Under North Carolina law, Robert Bacon and Bonnie Clark both faced the possibility of a death sentence irrespective of who actually inflicted the fatal stab.3 Following the penalty phase of the trial, the jury sentenced Robert (who is black) to death. In a separate proceeding and with a different jury, Bonnie (who is white) was sentenced to life in prison. In this introductory section, I shall discuss the circumstances surrounding Robert Bacon’s death sentence as a way of demonstrating how, during a criminal trial, race can influence sentencing outcomes. Ultimately, my goal in this chapter is to investigate, through analysis of statistical data, whether race continues to matter in death sentencing in North Carolina, even after significant legal reforms designed to end racial bias have been implemented. I also hope to identify other factors besides race that may explain death sentencing. Since Robert and Bonnie were tried separately and by different juries, we cannot simply conclude based solely on the different outcomes that racism determined the outcome. However, we cannot rule out the influence of race entirely. To be sure, the difference in outcomes could have been attributed to

case facts such as the quality and effectiveness of defense attorneys handling the cases, the extent to which the jurors actually understood the judges’ instructions, and the number of aggravating versus mitigating circumstances found in each case. When we scrutinize Robert Bacon’s case closely, however, we find evidence suggesting that race did indeed play a role in his death sentence. The evidence was a notarized affidavit from a juror, Pamela Bloom Smith, who participated in the trial and had voted in favor of death. Robert Bacon had been on death row for about 10 years and was scheduled to die on May 18, 2001. On May 9, 2001, Pamela Bloom Smith came forward and made her declaration about the nature of the jury deliberations:

I remember during our deliberations there was discussion of the fact that Bacon was dating a white woman. This topic came up after the first vote. A female juror first brought up the issue. Some jurors felt it was wrong for a black man to date a white woman. Jurors also felt that black people commit more crime and that is it typical of blacks to be involved in crime. We talked about this for at least ten to fifteen minutes and some jurors were adamant in their feeling that Bacon was a black man and “he deserved what he got”. I understood this to mean Bacon should receive the death penalty.4