U.S. Supreme Court

Federal prosecutor defends himself after Sotomayor blasts his trial question as 'racially charged'


Photo of Sonia Sotomayor by collection of the
Supreme Court of the United States, Steve
Petteway, via Wikimedia Commons.

A federal prosecutor in Texas is defending himself after Justice Sonia Sotomayor blasted him on Monday for a “racially charged” courtroom question.

Sotomayor did not identify the prosecutor by name in a statement she authored condemning his cross-examination of an African-American man accused in a drug conspiracy. The Los Angeles Times and the San Antonio Express-News are among the publications that have since identified the prosecutor as Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam Ponder of San Antonio.

Sotomayor’s statement, joined by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, agreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to deny cert in the case while decrying the prosecutor’s question about money, minorities and drug deals. “The prosecutor here tapped a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our nation,” Sotomayor wrote.

The defendant, Bongani Charles Calhoun, had claimed he was on a road trip with friends and didn’t realize they were about to engage in a drug transaction when one friend arrived in a hotel room with money. Ponder asked this question:

“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?”

Ponder had not read the justices’ statement when contacted by the Los Angeles Times. “It was a question taken out of context,” he told the newspaper. “It was one question out of several hundred,” he said. “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.”

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