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Demonstrators, including members of the anti-death penalty Abolitionist Action Committee and faith leaders, protest on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, marking the 40th anniversary of the first execution since the death penalty was reinstated, on Jan. 17, 2017.

I first noticed it in a South Carolina courthouse 20 years ago. Our client was on trial for capital murder, and the State was seeking the death penalty. The defendant as well as the victim were black. The prosecutors, the judge and most of the jury were white. But so were the two South Carolina defense lawyers and so am I—a partner in a Washington law firm.

Walking back to the defense table after a bench conference, I glanced at the burly African American deputy sheriff seated beside the door to the holding cell. We locked eyes, and he nodded. In capital murder trials the courtroom is heavily guarded. The deputies and police officers—black and white—were on the county prosecutor’s home team. They would mostly glare at the defendant and at us. We were the ones slowing down the process. I didn’t think about that nod for long—maybe just a small touch of Southern courtesy.

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