(a press release from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation)
NC Racial Justice Act: First Five Death Row Defendants File Motions Citing Strong Evidence of Racial Bias
Durham, NC — One year ago, the North Carolina General Assembly took the trailblazing step of passing the Racial Justice Act, a guarantee that no person would be put to death because of racial bias in our state’s justice system.
This week, the law is finally being put to the test. Five death row inmates have asked the courts to convert their death sentences to life imprisonment without parole. All can prove that race played a key role in their trials.
The cases were filed today in Stanly, Randolph, Martin, Forsyth and Davie counties.
“Race still plays a part in determining who lives and dies in our justice system, and that is unacceptable,” said Center for Death Penalty Litigation Executive Director Malcolm R. Hunter. “We are proud that North Carolina is honestly confronting this legacy of injustice.”
North Carolina’s handling of the cases will be watched around the country, as it is the first state to undertake a comprehensive effort to sever the historical ties between race and the death penalty. The Racial Justice Act cements North Carolina’s long history of leadership in efforts to promote racial equality.
The cases are supported by three new comprehensive studies of the death penalty in North Carolina.
“We would like to live and practice in a system where race does not matter,” said Ken Rose, staff attorney at CDPL. “But the results show that white victims are valued more highly than black ones, and that black jurors are being denied their right to serve. This evidence of racial bias cannot be ignored.”
One of the new studies, from Michigan State University, shows that prosecutors in capital trials used peremptory strikes to exclude eligible blacks from juries at more than twice the rate that they excluded whites. Of the 159 inmates now on death row in North Carolina, 31 were sentenced by all-white juries, and another 38 had only one minority on their sentencing juries.
Two more studies, one from Michigan State University and one from the University of Colorado, show that those who kill whites are more likely to get the death penalty than those who kill blacks. The MSU study found that a defendant is 2.6 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white. The UC study found that a defendant’s odds of getting the death penalty increase by 2.96 times if the victim is white.
The findings echo those of previous studies in North Carolina and around the country.
The MSU study also found that in some districts, minority defendants were more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants.
The five cases presented to the courts today reveal these problems in stark relief.
In all five cases, the victims were white and the defendants were minorities, and prosecutors struck eligible blacks from the juries at far greater rates than eligible whites. In several cases, prosecutors rejected eligible black jurors even while accepting similar white jurors.
Three of the defendants were sentenced by all-white juries. In the other cases, only one or two minorities sat on the juries — even in Martin County, where nearly half the population was black.
In the Randolph County case, one member of the all-white jury admitted after the fact that “bigotry” influenced his decision to vote for the execution of a black defendant. In Union County, the defendant was referred to as a “n—–” during testimony.
“We don’t condone the crimes these men committed, and even if they win their cases under the Racial Justice Act, they will remain in prison for life,” said Hunter. “But we cannot, in good conscience, execute people who received death sentences because of the color of their skin, or their victims’ skin.”
The Racial Justice Act went into effect on August 11, 2009. Kentucky is the only other state with similar, but less comprehensive, legislation.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said when she signed the act that it “ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state’s harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals, the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”
The Racial Justice Act is exceptional because — much like civil rights laws — it allows the use of statewide or regional statistical evidence to prove racial bias, and it specifies that even unintentional bias is grounds for reexamining a death sentence. Those provisions were included with the understanding that racial bias is very rarely openly admitted, and evidence of trends is often the only way to prove it.
Inmates on death row were given until August 10, 2010 to file claims under the act.
As the deadline approaches, North Carolina begins a challenging new chapter in its history — one in which the state has an opportunity to acknowledge the fact of continuing racial bias and scrub it away from the courtrooms that decide matters of life and death.